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Breaking News: SFPD Takes Away SF Call Press Pass

By Betsey Culp

January 18, 2005. Today the Public Affairs Office of the San Francisco Police Department denied this reporter’s request for a press pass on the grounds that the San Francisco Call does not cover breaking news.

Although the SFPD has routinely issued and renewed the pass in question since 1998, the department is now in the process of weeding out ineligible recipients, said a police spokesman. The official guidelines (text version) state, “Only persons employed by news-gathering media who are required to cover breaking news and to pass through police and fire lines qualify for a press pass.”


Let’s talk a little about press passes.

All over the country, city police departments issue the little laminated cards, complete with photograph, according to criteria that they themselves generate. In principle, they are designed to help the police control activities near crime scenes and other places where public access could be hazardous.

In practice, they are used to control access.

SF Call readers will recall my complaint last week at being forbidden to enter the City Hall press box without a press pass. When I started writing about San Francisco, I saw no need for a pass — the city’s Sunshine Ordinance insures entry to most meetings and public events. But one night, when I was covering the annual Halloween festivities for children in the Tenderloin, I realized why reporters need press passes: a police officer refused to allow me to enter the highlight of the evening, a neighborhood-sponsored party, because I didn’t have one. Others have had similar problems in doing their job. During the same-sex marriage festivities last February, a respected freelance reporter who contributes regularly to the Marina Times was kept from entering City Hall for the same reason.

When I went to the Public Affairs Office this year to renew my pass, I worried to the officers there that I would not be able to enter the press box during the inauguration of the supervisors. No problem, they said. Just show the sheriff’s deputy your press credentials.

Not so. The sheriff’s deputy wanted to see my press pass. And rightly so. Press credentials do not carry the clout of a pass issued by the Police Department, and for good reason. A friend, another well-established freelancer, has three credentials, from three different publications, all very impressive-looking, all fake.

It is possible for reporters and photographers to obtain press passes from the Independent Press Association or the National Press Association, allowing them to very legitimately get into many concerts and conventions. But there is no reason that the SFPD will consider these passes equivalent to the ones that it issues.

When I complained to the officer who denied my pass that I hadn’t been able to enter the press box, he told me I could have covered the meeting elsewhere in the building. Did it really make a difference that I spent the nearly two hours of the meeting in the South Light Court, watching the proceedings on TV?

As you know if you’ve ever watched the Board of Supervisors on television, the supes often wander over to the press box and chat with the men and women sitting there. Aides also appear, bearing just-written press releases. And unobstructed sightlines allow excellent photo ops. But equally important, a person in the press box gets to watch all the action that doesn’t make it to the TV screen — who is sitting in the spectator section, who is talking to whom on the sidelines. It’s details like these, far more than the information contained in a press release, that allow a reporter to understand what’s going on.

But what about the “breaking news” criterion? No, I don’t write breaking news stories, or at least very rarely. The indefatigable Pat Murphy does that on the Sentinel. There’s no need for two people to do the same thing. I write what’s known as “second-day news,” stories where the initial events have been allowed to simmer a bit while we figure out what they’re all about. But that doesn’t mean I write second-hand news. I am still a member of the “news-gathering media” covering “breaking news.” Like Murphy or the Chronicle’s Rachel Gordon or the Examiner’s Adriel Hampton, I need first-hand information to work from, or what I write will be nothing more than what any thoughtful member of the public could produce.

Limiting press passes to a small segment of reporters creates a two-tiered press corps. The public has — quite rightly — become suspicious of what the press produces when it’s racing to break news first. These days the public seeks and needs the balance that less deadline-bound reporters provide. If breaking news is one of the criteria for issuing press passes, where do the boundaries fall? Do you include weekly papers like the Guardian and the Weekly? What about Poor Magazine’s PNN News? Monthlies like the Richmond Review? What about online commentators such as h. brown on SFBulldog, or Savannah Blackwell on SFProgressive, or Hank Donat on MisterSF? Do you require some sort of public recognition? In 2002, when the SF Call still published a print version, the SF Weekly named it the best neighborhood paper of the year. Do you require some sort of civic involvement? Last year the SF Call sponsored a forum for mayoral candidates (every major candidate but Gavin Newsom showed up) and another for all three candidates running for DA.

Limiting press passes does indeed create a two-tiered press corps. And the gap widens when you consider that, for a fee, a reporter with a personal press pass can obtain a vehicular one as well. If you’ve ever wandered through Civic Center Plaza on a Tuesday afternoon, you’ve undoubtedly seen rows of parked cars, each with a yellow placard on its dashboard. The cars belong to reporters. No, they’re not all covering a murder in the neighborhood. No, they’re not going to suddenly leap into those waiting cars and head off, tires screaming, to file a breaking story at their office. They’re in City Hall, at one of those seemingly endless Board meetings. But the vehicular pass means they don’t have to interrupt their coverage to feed the meter.

Encouraging the use of public transit is noble, and there’s no reason why most reporters can’t arrive by bus or BART. That’s not the point. The point is that once again, press passes have created a two-tiered system. The winners get to park for free. The losers — the little guys? — don’t.

It all comes back to what Jerry Brown used to call the gatekeepers.

There’s a wise old saying that knowledge is power.

But access to knowledge — being able to find out something that someone else can’t — is even more powerful.

And being able to decide who has access and who doesn’t — who gets to enter the place where knowledge awaits, and who doesn’t — is the most powerful of all.