David Wallis has interviewed Vaclav Havel, Jimmy Carter and Lee Iacocca. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Washington Post. He has edited two books, including Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print. He is the founder of Featurewell.com, a website where editors can purchase the rights to articles and photos.
Most journalists I know wouldn’t mind having those bullet points on their resume.
But Wallis said these credentials didn’t get him the treatment he thought he deserved when, in 2007, his request for a renewal of his press card was denied by the NYPD.
The NYPD would become a thorn in his side for the next year – a real pest. And perhaps the NYPD felt the same way about Wallis and two other journalists when, in late 2008, they decided to sue under the counsel of civil-rights lawyer Norman Siegel.
Eventually the journalists were issued press cards and the lawsuit was settled. It also led the NYPD to establish new rules governing the issuance of press cards.
I sat down with David Wallis over a beer to chat about his ordeal. Here are some excerpts:
What was the explanation the NYPD gave for the denial of your press card renewal?
I’d renewed it three or four times, I forget how many. Had it for a long time. But this time they said that I was illegitimate. That was the word that they used in terms of using Featurewell.com as my publication. Suddenly I was illegitimate and of course, you know, that’ll piss you off.
Norman Siegel said that the police shouldn’t be in the business of determining who is and who isn’t a journalist. Do you agree – why or why not?
I still argue that the police department might not be the best organization within the city to be involved in the credentialing process because they’ve had contentious relationships with journalists over the years and they are often reported upon. So in some ways it’s a conflict of interest.
The NYPD eventually granted you press cards. Why wasn’t that enough, and how was a settlement reached?
We were given the press cards but the case continued because we were trying not to just get press credentials, but we were trying to change the system.
Then the city said, “do you want to talk about this, do you want to try and craft a settlement.” The city understood that we believed in our convictions, we had some reasonable points and it was worth pursuing a reasonable settlement.
It’s pretty widely known that we have a de facto settlement where the city has changed up their policies. The rules have gone into effect and we’ve agreed with those rules.
How did the case help journalists?
We created what I think is a reasonable set of criteria to determine who is a journalist and who deserves credentials. And it doesn’t matter whether you publish in print or online, and that was the sticking point. It shouldn’t matter if it’s paper or pixels.