SAN DIEGO — Years ago, the San Diego police chief and county sheriff cut a deal to save each other time. The sheriff would issue concealed weapons permits for the region and the chief would grant media credentials used to get behind police tape.
With the chief embroiled in a lawsuit by a freelance photographer and videographer who was denied a pass and a widening national debate over who should qualify for privileged access, it looks like the sheriff may have gotten the better end of the deal.
San Diego police may follow other agencies by ending media credentials as the spread of bloggers and online publications make it more difficult to define who is a journalist. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security stopped issuing credentials last month and the Orange County Sheriff's Department in Southern California did so in December.
"With the advancements in digital media and the proliferation of bloggers, podcasters and freelancers, it has become challenging to determine who should receive a press pass," the sheriff's department said.
At stake for journalists is whether they can cover certain stories. At stake for the general public is who delivers their news.
One scenario is that authorities don't allow anyone behind police tape, said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. Another possibility is that bloggers with large followings and high professional standards are shut out.
"If everybody is precluded from observing, photographing, writing about it, then at the end of the day we don't have a very transparent government and the public loses," Osterreicher said. "If you limit it too much, then you exclude a lot of people out there who practice journalism but don't fall in the traditional definition."
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore's spokeswoman told a Society of Professional Journalists forum last month that not everyone who claims to be a journalist is the same.
"You can sit with your Apple laptop and your fuzzy slippers, you can be an 800-pound disabled man that can't get out of bed, and be a journalist because you can blog something," said Jan Caldwell, public affairs director. "Does that give you the right — because you blog in your fuzzy slippers out of your bedroom and you don't go out and you haven't gotten that degree — should you be called a journalist?"
Caldwell answered no, but her remarks at the forum drew swift reactions. Sara Libby, managing editor of the online Voice of San Diego, wrote that the "stereotype of bloggers as slovenly basement dwellers is incredibly antiquated" and said bloggers "rule the world."
"It's the journalism that's produced — how it's presented, the service it performs — that matters," Libby wrote.
Three online writers sued in 2008 for being denied New York City Police Department press credentials, saying they deserved equal access. One said he was unable to cover the New York Giants' Super Bowl victory parade and Times Square New Years' Eve festivities, while another said he couldn't attend the mayor's news conferences. The lawsuit was settled after the city agreed to ease its criteria to include online-only publications.
Even before the boom in online journalism, some agencies had second thoughts. The California Highway Patrol stopped issuing credentials about a decade ago because the job was too-time consuming and some abused them for backstage concert passes and other perks, said spokeswoman Fran Clader. The CHP now accepts any press identification, even a company business card.
Many journalists support the idea of credentials to cover stories that, for public safety or crowd control, cannot be open to everyone. The passes have been essential on major events like wildfires that ravaged Southern California in 2003 and 2007.
The controversy has spread to state capitals, where credentials are used to cover governors' news conference and gain access to certain areas of legislative floors.
In some states, like Washington and Virginia, journalism groups decide who gets passes. The Wisconsin Capital Correspondents Association disbanded in December, leaving the job to lawmakers after some reporters complained that vetting for credentials was too time-consuming.
The San Diego Police Department's policy requires a regular presence in the region, being published at least once a month for six months and demonstrating a need to cross police and fire lines.
Freelancer James "J.C." Playford sued city and county officials in September for being denied access, alleging violations of constitutional rights to a free press and against illegal search and seizure. Playford is often among the first to arrive on fast-breaking stories, pitching his work to news organizations, including The Associated Press.
Playford, a house painter from suburban Ramona who turned to journalism in 2007, has clashed repeatedly with law enforcement officers and had equipment seized after police refused to renew his credential in 2010.
In May, a San Diego jury convicted him of a misdemeanor charge of resisting an officer at the scene of a bomb threat at an office of U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa. Prosecutors say he ignored officers' orders to move. They knocked a cell phone out of his hand, fearing it was a remote detonator, and he cursed them as he was taken into custody.
Playford faces the same charge over his behavior at the scene of traffic wreck in May. In a video he shot and posted online, Playford angrily demands officers identify themselves on camera, explain why they were keeping him at a distance and threatens to retaliate in court.
"He's extremely rough around the edges," said Edward Peruta, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit and owner of American News and Information Services Inc., a small company that sells video to news outlets and gave Playford a company credential.
Lt. Andra Brown, a San Diego police spokeswoman, said Chief William Lansdowne was unavailable to comment on the lawsuit or the policy. She said the department was reviewing its policy and that ending credentials was one possibility. Lansdowne and other defendants have asked a judge to dismiss the complaint.