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Are bloggers press? The LAPD doesn't seem to think so

BY Morra Aarons-Mele | Wednesday, January 30 2008

I understand with every new medium there are some growing pains. There is debate to be had over which entities can call themselves "media" and which are not. Over what constitutes a "legitimate" news or information source and what is just one woman and her blog, with no readers. But there is something to be said about that one woman and her blog, utilizing the freedom of the press and the officials she elects and tax dollars she contributes.

I encourage you to engage in this debate online and with your local, city, and state officials. Katy and I will mail the necessary requirements to the LAPD and wait for the results.

Tomorrow we WILL be covering the Democratic debate at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, as they have credentialed us without law enforcement press passes. In comparison, before I even submitted our social security numbers to organizers for the event, I received a "we'd be pleased to have you" response almost overnight.

"...this is online, right? We're not doing online. You have to submit the employer and show me three months of coverage in Los Angeles and I have to look at it before I can give you passes."

Sound familiar? If you're a blogger, you've no doubt had to justify your "media-ness," or maybe you've had to justify your reach, audience, general worthiness to those offering credentials or entry to an event you would like to cover. My colleague from BlogHer.com, Erin Kotecki Vest, is a former news reporter in LA. Below, she reports her horrific experience trying to get a credential for tonight's GOP debate, via the Los Angeles Police Department. It's a great read, but it's an important issue: are bloggers press only when authorities want them to be?
Erin writes:

BlogHer's Katy Chen and I planned on posting a video from the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley-much like you saw with BlogHer's Mary Katharine Ham and Morra Aarons from New Hampshire.

Organizers of the event credentialed BlogHer.com to cover the GOP debate, but required all credentials be picked up with a "law enforcement issued press pass."

However, the Los Angeles Police Department denied credentials to both Katy and I on the grounds we are "online media" and BlogHer.com was not throughly investigated by the LAPD. This decision came suddenly after weeks of talks with LAPD personnel and assurances that Katy and I, as former Los Angeles news reporters, would be applying for a press pass "renewal" as we were simply changing our media affiliation.

Normally any new reporter would have to go through a background check and fingerprinting before being issued credentials, but as Katy and I have already been through this process had been issued credentials for previous employers, we were told it was only a matter of "pulling us up in the system" and issuing stickers for 2008-2010.

BlogHer.com made all the necessary arrangements from passport photos to signed letters stating Katy and I were BlogHer employees and would indeed be covering events and news inside Los Angeles. We were told to contact LAPD on Monday morning, as the woman who issues the press passes would be in at 6:30am specifically to renew media for the next two days as "everyone is coming in getting them for the GOP debate, we'll be doing it all day and night."

Monday morning came, and I called as instructed and spoke with LAPD media relations in order to set my appointment time for renewal that day. It was then I was told "we've never heard of you or this blogher thing and you need a background check."

I explained Katy and I had completed all the necessary steps, were instructed to bring our new employment letter to the police station, and that we can both be found in the LAPD "system."

I was then told "...this is online, right? We're not doing online. You have to submit the employer and show me three months of coverage in Los Angeles and I have to look at it before I can give you passes."

To be honest, I was thrown. Here we had spoken to LAPD personnel, checking and double checking for weeks if we had prepared properly and were being told, two days before the event, we had to submit three months worth of coverage and find a way to show "via tape or print" BlogHer.com's amazing coverage.

I offered to hand-deliver links, printed pages of the site and to assist in anyway possible in showing BlogHer.com as a legitimate source of information.

I was told there was no need, "submit it all by mail and I'll review it and get back to you." I asked if I could FedEx documents, given the rush and was again rebuffed with, "there is no need, I'm not going to get to it. It could take months."

Frustrated and confused I hung up with LAPD, promising to send in our information via snail mail soon. Then I made a few more calls, and this is where the real story begins.

As luck would have it, Katy and I have had the good fortune of working for several news outlets in Los Angeles. We've gotten to know many news directors , anchors, and reporters over the years. Katy and I began calling and emailing past colleagues.

My first call was to the President of the Radio and Television News Directors Association or RTNDA. It was then I learned of the ongoing battle between the LAPD and media. I was told the RTNDA and LAPD agreed last year to come up with a system for issuing credentials to bloggers and failed to reach an agreement. In the meantime, RTNDA and LAPD agreed to put online media through the same background check and fingerprinting as main stream media and they would issue press passes on a case by case basis. I was told given Katy and my background in Los Angeles news media this should not have been an issue.

Furthermore, after talking to several local news directors, the LAPD personnel's claim of "not knowing who we were" was contradicted. Each news director told me they had been approached by the LAPD and specifically asked about myself and Katy-if they knew us, when we worked for them, etc.

The confusion over the subject had Katy and I contacting the LA County Sheriff's department and the California Highway Patrol to see if they would credential us in time for the debate. New background checks were needed for the LA Sheriff's as they do not use the same system as the LAPD, and the turn-around time was months.

Then the emails and calls TO us began. I received several offers from local and national media to help us out. They would write letters saying we were their employees. They would give us unused 2008-2010 stickers. They would even let us take their well-known anchor's pass (a man) up to the check in point of the library, simply to make a statement.

I politely and with much gratitude decline their offers, and agreed with each offering party that we would tackle this together, formally, as media brethren.

We're not the only ones who have faced this issue. Frank Russo tackled this with the California Legislature in March of last year.

I understand with every new medium there are some growing pains. There is debate to be had over which entities can call themselves "media" and which are not. Over what constitutes a "legitimate" news or information source and what is just one woman and her blog, with no readers. But there is something to be said about that one woman and her blog, utilizing the freedom of the press and the officials she elects and tax dollars she contributes.

I encourage you to engage in this debate online and with your local, city, and state officials. Katy and I will mail the necessary requirements to the LAPD and wait for the results.

Tomorrow we WILL be covering the Democratic debate at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, as they have credentialed us without law enforcement press passes. In comparison, before I even submitted our social security numbers to organizers for the event, I received a "we'd be pleased to have you" response almost overnight.

I'd like to thank the Ronald Reagan Library for welcoming BlogHer.com and apologize for our absence tonight. And I'd be remiss to not publicly thank the various Los Angeles news departments that offered us their support, help, and who even vouched for us with the LAPD. I'm encouraged to see the old guard embrace and encourage the new, proving to me, once again, it's all about community-online or otherwise.