Zuccotti Park’s Airspace Was Never Closed

Misreporting, and misunderstanding, of the press's right-to-fly

Did the New York’s police close airspace to prevent news helicopters from getting footage of police action against Occupy Wall Street protesters?

That is certainly the story—it has been widely reported by outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Slate, The New York Review of Books, CBS, The Atlantic, Time, Gothamist, and The Nation and held up as proof that Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD were up to things so sinister that their media blackout included the skies.

This idea became part of the story during last Tuesday’s morning’s raid on Zuccotti Park when Anthony De Rosa, Reuters’ social media editor tweeted:

I just spoke with the CBS News desk and they were told to leave the airspace above Zuccotti Park by NYPD

De Rosa’s message was retweeted more than 100 times, and cited in numerous news accounts, including those above.

But while the idea that airspace was closed is convenient to the media blackout narrative, the police department doesn’t have that power. And that’s something New York’s chopper-owning stations ought to know.

The FAA has the authority to close airspace, not the NYPD. While the FAA will close airspace in response to requests made for public safety and security reasons, the FAA did not receive any requests from city or NYPD officials to close airspace above Southern Manhattan last week, according to Arlene Salac, a public affairs officer with the agency’s Eastern Region. Salac confirms that it was not, indeed, closed.

A NYPD spokesman also denied ever closing airspace in a succinct email—written in all caps—to CJR: “NYPD CANNOT , AND DID NOT CLOSE AIR SPACE. ONLY FAA CAN DO THAT. NO INDICATION IT DID.”

The NYPD tweeted as much last Thursday after WNBC incorrectly reported that its news chopper had been ordered out of airspace above the protests:

NBC New York’s chopper told by NYPD to move- airspace being closed over protests. #OWS via @NBCNewYork

From the @nypdnews:

@NBCNews @NBCNewYork NYPD has never closed airspace and it is not our authority to do so.

WNBC issued a correction tweet, which was retweeted, but which hasn’t made most, if any, press reports:

CORRECTION: Chopper 4 pilot misunderstood directions from the tower. He was NOT ordered out of airspace over protests. #OWS #N17

While WCBS did not respond to CJR’s request for comment, the available evidence suggests that CBS did actually believe they’d been ordered out of lower Manhattan. (After De Rosa’s initial tweet, Mediabistro followed up and confirmed it with a reporter from the station.) It appears that there was either some sort of miscommunication or, more troubling, a misunderstanding by CBS and much of the media about what the NYPD has the power to do—and tell them to do with their helicopters.

It’s important the media get these facts right—both for the record and for the sake of reporting the next time press choppers are needed in unfriendly skies.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , ,