Joel Johnson — I was nearly thrown out of the Astrodome complex for helping set up a network for donated computers. To be fair, after the jump, you'll find out it was basically a big misunderstanding. You'll also be able to read about my confusion about press access and be able to infer the reasons behind why I sometimes consider ditching the press credentials altogether and just lie.
Being a freelance journalist is weird. Often you have to say you are press with offering proper press credentials, even though you are legitimately working as press. For that reason, I always try to register with at least one press org or outlet before I start working, so as to work within the official channels as much as possible. I say this to clarify that I have an official press pass, although it isn't from the outlets through which I will be publishing.
But I always try to work within the official infrastructure as much as possible—clearly declaring that I am with the press, going through press entrances instead of trying to 'sneak in' to areas, etc. By the same token, when I told the police officer who was guarding the entrance to the stairs that led to an office area run by FEMA that I was going upstairs to "help with the computers," that was the truth, too.
He let me in without a second glance, despite my big flopping press pass and green wristband that signifies me as registered press. And that's what I really was there to do—a group was setting up donated computers upstairs and needed help routing an internet connection from FEMA's open wireless network to a series of ethernet switches, and Will Hawkins (one of our CUWireless group) needed his iBook to act as the router (it was in my bag).
So I went upstairs, walked through a room full of FEMA employees (I presume, or possibly volunteers working for FEMA) and into the room where the volunteer group was setting up the PCs. After Will and I set up the router, one of the FEMA employees came over and talked to the volunteer group about "someone from the press posing as a volunteer."
I figured that must be me (although I didn't realize the press weren't allowed in the area in the first place). So I followed the FEMA guys out as I left and stopped them, letting them know that I was with the press, I was there to help set up the network, and that I didn't realize it was a problem for the press to be there. I made it clear that I was leaving right then, and that I was sorry if I wasn't supposed to be there, but that I didn't want them searching for a sneaky press jerk if that sneaky press jerk was in fact me. They seemed perturbed, but unconcerned.
So I walked downstairs, to be apprehended (peacefully) by an officer of the HPD, who said she was going to "report me and revoke my press privileges." I explained to her that I had just spoken to FEMA about my mistake and that I'd be happy to talk to someone upstairs to verify that I did not, as she put it, "lie to the officer."
We turned to go upstairs, when the very same FEMA employees came down the steps. She asked the FEMA employee if I was up there helping with the computers, and he said he didn't know what I was doing up there. The very man who stood in the room of volunteers and saw me working on machines with Will denied that he knew what I was doing.
Anyway—this is taking far too long, but I just felt like I wanted to record what happened—the employees of the volunteer organization (who I am leaving anonymous because I don't want to screw up their relationship with FEMA, if possible) quickly vouched for me, and the HPD officer escorted me downstairs at my request.
I'm not outraged or anything. I mean, if they don't want press in the area, they should have a sign (and it would have been nice if that dude from FEMA wouldn't have been so priggish), but it's just really confusing. If I would have put my press badge and bracelet in my pocket, I would have been able to walk freely, but instead I was trying to be as open as possible and was nearly thrown out. (I don't think they are arresting press that are in the 'forbidden' places, but just ejecting them along w/their access.)
It's just strange. I understand they don't want tons of press in the areas where the evacuees are, but I don't really understand why they are so concerned about press being in places where assistance is being provided. Then again, there's a lot about the mechanism of journalism that I don't understand and am having to learn as I go. Plus, it doesn't make it any easier to be here both as a journalist and as an aide worker. But I'm trying to be as upfront about both as possible, as appropriate.
Here's the big story from inside the FEMA room, though: There are people there, doing work to help other people, on computers.!