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NPPA Attorney Keeping Them Honest One Letter At A Time

When a Miami Beach police officer ordered a man at gunpoint to hand over a cell phone after he had video recorded a dozen officers shooting a man to death on Memorial Day, the National Press Photographers Association quickly fired a letter off to the mayor and police chief in defense of the citizen.

When the Transportation Security Administration hinted in June it was going to revise its policy that allows passengers to photograph the airport checkpoint areas, the NPPA fired off another letter, this time to Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano, which resulted in a quick clarification on the TSA blog that it was not going to change its policy.

And when a Suffolk County police sergeant arrested a news videographer for trying to record the aftermath of a police chase turned collision in July, the NPPA did the same, forcing its chief to admit his sergeant was wrong and agreeing to building a training program for officers.

The man behind those letters – and many others – is Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the NPPA, a man who has spent more years working as a photojournalist than as an attorney.

As head attorney for the NPPA since 2006, he has proven to be one of the most influential, informed and aggressive attorneys in the United States when it comes to the legal rights of photographers.

He has your back even if you’re not an NPPA member. But as an NPPA member, you can receive a nice badge that identifies you as a member, which can come in handy next time you get harassed for taking photos as well as many other benefits.

“The more members we have the more we will be able to do and the greater voice visual journalists will have,” he said.

The NPPA

In the first half of the 20th century, photographers were considered second-class citizens in the newsrooms, beneath the reporters.

“Back then, photographers learned on the streets and were not treated with the same respect as reporters,” Osterreicher said.

So in 1946, they organized the NPPA with some very strong words on the front page of their newsletter.

“With this issue is born a voice, one that has been mute much too long.  We’re no longer going to permit ourselves to be relegated to the position of unwelcome, but necessary, stepchildren of the Fourth Estate.

We’ve got a voice, finally, and we’re going to make use of it. No false modesty. No muffling of that voice under a barrel. We’re going to yell so loud — when the occasion demands, and not just for the fun of hearing ourselves shout — that those in this country who have been injuring us with scant courtesy will begin to realize that here is a new force to be reckoned with.”

“The whole idea of NPPA was to be a voice for photojournalists and I think that voice continues loud and strong,” he said.

Today, it is more important than ever for that voice to ring loud and strong because photographers are not just treated like second-class citizens; they are treated like suicide bombers.

And because there has been so much fragmentation and cutbacks in the media landscape, many photojournalists do not have the security of having a powerful news company stand up for them if they get harassed or arrested.

The changing media landscape has also forced the NPPA to evolve with the times.

“We used to be an organization whose members were mostly staff photographers at news companies, but now we’re made up mostly independent visual journalists who work in multimedia,” he said.

But Osterreicher also stresses that just because the media landscape has changed, it doesn’t mean that traditional journalistic ethics change.

It is extremely important for all NPPA members abide the organization’s Code of Ethics.

Code of Ethics

Visual journalists and those who manage visual news productions are accountable for upholding the following standards in their daily work:

  1. Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
  2. Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
  3. Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
  4. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
  5. While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
  6. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
  7. Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
  8. Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
  9. Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.

“That is what distinguishes the professional visual journalist from the general public,” he said.

So who can join?

Professional membership in the NPPA is open to all individuals who are working or aspiring towards working in the field of visual journalism. This includes those who work or freelance in photography, multimedia, audio, video, design, editing, producing, teaching, writing, reporting, or visual journalism on the Web. Members of the NPPA may work for an organization or institution, or be self-employed.

Osterreicher’s career

Born in the Bronx to a Jewish family, he was named after Mickey Mantle by an uncle who was a huge New York Yankees fan.

So yes, his real birth name is Mickey, as he explains in this 2005 Living Prime Time magazine article.

He moved to Buffalo at the age of 16 and never looked back, enrolling in the University of Buffalo where he became photo of editor of the school newspaper in 1970.

After graduating in 1973, he joined the NPPA when he started stringing for the Associated Press and the New York Times. He then got a full-time job at the Buffalo Courier-Express where he remained until the paper folded in 1982 (check out his photos in the gallery above).

That same year he was hired by WKBW-TV, the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, where he went from shooting stills to video.

One of the highlights of his career was covering the release of Terry Anderson in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1991 after Anderson had been held hostage by Shiite Hezbollah militants in Lebanon for more than six years.

“My video was the open to ABC’s World News Tonight,” he said. “It was also on Nightline and Good Morning, America.”

He also covered all four Buffalo Bills Super Bowls in the early 1990s for ESPN.

In 1995, he enrolled in the University of Buffalo law school, graduating in 1998 and admitted to the bar in 1999.

Because he would work from 3 a.m. to noon at WKBW-TV, he was able to go into private practice while continuing to work as a photojournalist.

He left WKBW-TV in 2004 to focus fully on his law practice. By then, his journalistic work had appeared in the The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, USA Today, ABC World News Tonight, Nightline, Good Morning, America, NBC Nightly News and ESPN.

In 2005, he began working with the NPPA, drafting two amicus briefs in the case of Court TV vs State of New York where the TV show was trying to reverse the New York ban of cameras in the courtroom.

They ended up failing to reverse the ban, making New York only one of three states that does not allow cameras in the courtroom.

In 2006. he was hired by the NPPA as general counsel, which turned out to be the perfect job for him.

“I was always interested in media law,” he said. “I was always interested in getting cameras into the courtrooms where they had been banned since the 1950s.”

His passion for getting cameras into the courtrooms is evident in a piece he had published last month titled Cameras in the Courts: The Long Road to the New Federal Experiment. Page 17 (or pg 221 if you’re looking at the bottom corner).

Lately seems as if cameras have been banned from public streets, not just courtrooms.

The letters get results

The war on photography began after 9/11 but has been getting increasingly worse as more people carry cameras and have the ability to instantly post photos or video on the internet.

One memorable incident involved Duane Kerzic, who was arrested by Amtrak police in Penn Station for photographing trains for an Amtrak contest in December 2008. It became a huge story on the internet, even though the mainstream media ignored it.

But The Colbert Report didn’t ignore it. And neither did the NPPA. By early 2009, Osterreicer had worked with Amtrak in drafting new guidelines, which made it clear to officers that photography is allowed.

The mainstream media started paying attention last summer after they finally got wind of the Anthony Graber arrest as well as the incident involving myself and NPPA member Stretch Ledford with the Metrorail security guards, which prompted another Osterreicher letter.

The Summer of 2011 was even crazier with high-profile incidents emerging daily. At one point, Osterreicher was sending out letters as quickly as I was posting stories, sometimes two a day.

It started off with the Miami Beach Memorial Day shooting, which resulted in Osterreicher helping Miami Beach police drafting a new photo policy.

Then there was the video that emerged of a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officer in Buffalo threatening to “fucking break” the face of a man who was videotaping him.

This took place in his backyard, so Osterreicher called a meeting with the department’s police chief, which resulted in the officer in question being suspended as well as the creation of a new photo policy within the department.

And then it was Fort Lauderdale police rewriting the Constitution by not allowing photographers to take pictures outside a Hollywood movie set. It was Osterreicher’s letter (along with my article) that prompted the South Florida Sun Sentinel to write an article, which eventually led to our protest and a judge’s order confirming photography was allowed.

Then there was the incident in Rochester where police arrested a woman for video recording from her front yard. Osterreicher fired off a letter, then followed it up by meeting with Rochester police officials to help create new training procedures for the department.

In fact, he fired off a total of 18 letters this year so far, most of them in the last three months, including one to the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments, one to the Tampa police department and one to the U.S. Park Police and Taxicab Commission.

And it doesn’t appear he’s going to stop anytime soon.

“I believe that NPPA has made good progress in showing law enforcement the error of their ways and in helping those agencies that are receptive to our help, but we still must guard against those who would infringe on our civil rights under color of law,” he said.

“I also believe that it is just as important to stand up for the rights of citizens to photograph and record in public. With credit to Benjamin Franklin – ‘we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately!'”

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