About Us

Contact Us


Bona Fides for the Fourth Estate

The Supes Hold a Press Pass Hearing

By Sue Cauthen

A bomb scare halted Monday's City Hall hearing on the rules for issuing city press passes. As he hastily adjourned the meeting, Supervisor Aaron Peskin assured the reporters present that all were welcome to cover the story, whether they held police-issued press cards or not.

But if the hearing had ended with a bang, the point could not have been made more succinctly: Current police "guidelines" create a double standard for the press. The big outfits get the access; the small outfits get frozen out.

Clearly, the supervisors’ Audit and Oversight Committee saw the difficulty of (1) segregating reporters who are trying to do their job and (2) establishing rigid criteria defining who qualifies as a bona fide journalist.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi called the hearing to explore the impact of the Police Department's recent hardball policies governing press passes. Particularly, he said, he wanted to acknowledge "the explosion of bloggers" and other online journalists and the unique role they play. Sgt. Neville Gittens, who vets press passes for the Police Department, said that "between 120 and 130" have been canceled over the past year. The grounds: only "legitimate" journalists should hold them.

In police-speak, "legit" or "bona fide" journalist means "the agencies we deal with on a daily basis," Gittens said. Heading the SFPD list is the Chronicle (122 of the 700 current press passes), the Examiner ("extensive but a lot less"), and the major TV and radio stations. It does not mean bloggers, online political newsletters, papers headquartered out of town or, heaven forfend, outfits that publish weekly or monthly.

Getting Tough

The Police Department has issued press passes for more than 20 years and is the only city agency that does so. Since the get-tough policy kicked in, Gittens has denied press passes to such diverse media as the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Business Times, and the SF Call. Tim Kingston, formerly of the Bay Times, said he had been "in and out of custody" because he crossed police lines to pursue a story, while Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond said he couldn't even get a press card. The crowd applauded when Redmond said he wished the police no longer issued them.

The police say they dole out the pink ducats only to reporters who cover "breaking news," which they define as events on the business side of police and fire lines. But this breaks down in practice. Sup. Peskin noted that the crime reporter for the Chronicle would need a pass but the City Hall reporter would not. In fact, both have them, in addition to 120 other folks on the Chronicle payroll. And press passes have become a de facto ID for gaining access at City Hall.

While it is proper for the police to control access to crime scenes, their mandate to maintain public safety already permits this. But it also serves the public when analysts and commentators obtain first-hand knowledge of news events. It shapes their perspective and provides a flavor that second-hand observation lacks.

The bottom line is that SFPD's management of press passes is making it harder for a large group of journalists to do their jobs. In a democracy, it is not the role of the police to decide what the people have a right to know and who tells them. That's the message a diverse group of reporters brought to the hearing.

"Technology has outpaced the current (police) criteria," said Pat Murphy, publisher of the online Sentinel. It is not SFPD's charge to decide who is press and who isn't." This results in "arbitrary and capricious practices."

Ditto, said freelancer Richard Knee, adding that it is "dangerous" to give the police the authority to say who is a "legitimate" news-gatherer.

Lee Romney of the Los Angeles Times said a two-tier system for passes won't work. "There should be one press pass for all," concurred Tim Kingston. "We don't want the cops licensing people," said h brown of SF Bulldog, which specializes in online political satire.

Vague and Arbitrary

SF Call publisher Betsey Culp, who had her pass "yanked" in January, after seven years, called the current process "vague and arbitrary." Freelancer Allen White noted that a police pass "legitimizes" a reporter and "defines who gets access."

Herbert Sample of the Sacramento Bee proposed that a press committee issue the passes as is done in the US Congress. Sample was denied a pass by SFPD. After the Bee's lawyer got involved, Sample got his pass.

Jackson West of the online SFist noted that the ability to post news quickly enhances public participation in the political process. He doesn’t qualify for a police pass, nor does Mark Calvey of the San Francisco Business Times. Under police rules, "we're not a legitimate news organization," Calvey said. "This puts us at a competitive disadvantage to the Chronicle."

In 2002, said Gittens, there were 1,800 press passes with the SFPD logo. This "shocked" then-chief Earl Sanders, who ordered Gittens to pare them down. Gittens cut them by 60%, to 700. How did he do it? By invoking lucidity-challenged guidelines which exclude freelancers, feature and editorial writers, dot.com outfits, and "all staff not actually gathering news at the scene of an incident." This amorphous "enemies list" would probably have been news to Ernest Hemingway, who was both a freelancer and a feature writer and who managed to get a front-row seat in two world wars.

At the end of the day, the Police Code standards are too narrow and need updating, Mirkarimi said. He is thinking of legislation down the road. The next step, however, is to work with SFPD to open up the process.

Gittens said that Chief Heather Fong is amenable to a two-tier system. He favors a separate pass for reporters who don't cover “breaking news." "I think it's the sense of the Board," said Peskin, "that we should revise the process and give the press (as defined broadly) a pass." It's time for an overhaul, concurred Mirkarimi. "We need to modify the law to make it more consistent and fair to reflect today's world."