NewsChannel 13 reporter Mark Mulholland and a videographer were threatened with arrest Thursday for trying to film the exterior of Mount McGregor prison.
Mulholland and videographer Matt Soriano were working on a story about Grant Cottage, which is on the grounds of the prison that is closing Saturday. Grant Cottage on Wednesday celebrated the 129th anniversary of the death of President Ulysses S. Grant, who had come to the cottage to finish writing his memoirs.
Station News Director Eric Hoppel said he sent Mulholland and a videographer on Wednesday to the site, where costumed re-enactors were commemorating the anniversary. The crew got some of what it needed, but then received word of a body found in Saratoga Lake.
“We pulled Mark off the Grant Cottage story and said we’ll go back and revisit that tomorrow,” Hoppel said.
Hoppel and Soriano went back Thursday to get more shots. Mulholland was filming the “stand up” on the access road, gesturing to the prison in the background, when the officer pulled up quickly in his vehicle.
“Excuse me. No filming,” said the officer, who identified himself later as Lt. Dorn.
Mulholland explained they were doing a story about Grant Cottage.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re on state property right now,” Dorn said. “You can’t film here. You gotta get permission through Albany to film.”
Mulholland said he would move back up the mountain to the Grant Cottage state historic site, which is open to the public.
Dorn said he could not allow him to do that.
“You’re not up here for that. You’re up here for different purposes,” he said.
Mulholland said permission is not needed to visit a historic site, and the men had the following exchange:
Mulholland: (to the cameraman) “You’re rolling right?” (to Dorn) “You’re telling us we can’t visit a historic site?”
Dorn: “No. You’re going to have to run that through Albany.”
After some more back and forth, Dorn said, “Look. I’m not going to go around with this you on this. You’re going to leave the property.”
“OK. We will. We will go up to the historic site,” Mulholland said.
“You cannot film up there,” Dorn said.
“We will go to the historic site and do our job,” Mulholland said.
Dorn then said he wants the State Police called to seek the crew’s removal.
Then, another corrections employee used his car to block NewsChannel 13’s access to the historic site. The officer moved his car to allow other visitors to come and go from the cottage.
Mulholland asked that he move his vehicle so they can get through. The officer then turned his car and inched up the hill toward the cottage, with NewsChannel 13 following.
Grant Cottage’s website states that the historic site shares the land with the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility. Visitors must check in at the gate and provide photo identification. The road then splits, with one side leading to the prison and the other to the cottage.
Weapons, firearms and photography of the inmates are prohibited, according to the website. It says nothing about photographing the prison.
When the NewsChannel 13 crew arrived at the top of the mountain, they noticed a film crew was inside the prison walls, apparently filming a movie on the grounds of the closed prison.
According to Corrections Department policy, the department does not release information on productions that use prison facilities as a backdrop. The department works with the governor’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, and with movie and TV production companies to provide shooting locations.
After the NewsChannel 13 crew got the shots they needed at Grant Cottage, Mulholland and Soriano left. On the way out, however, they were stopped by State Police troopers and Dorn.
Dorn said they couldn’t leave with the film containing images of the prison.
Mulholland asked him to explain the policy.
“If I’m a member of the public and I’m taking pictures of Grant’s Cottage and there’s the facility right behind it, what do you do in that case?” Mulholland asked.
“If we’re aware the facility is in the background, those photos will be confiscated,” Dorn said.
Mulholland then called Hoppel, the station’s news director, who was at Subway getting a sandwich.
Hoppel got on the phone and spoke to the trooper.
“He was very polite and very helpful. I got the sense that the trooper didn’t want to be involved in this,” he said.
An official at the Department of Corrections said the station had to surrender its video.
Hoppel disagreed: “We explained very politely that we felt we were within our rights to shoot this video from where we were and then we declined to hand over the video.”
When Hoppel got back to the station, he contacted NewsChannel 13’s corporate lawyer.
The lawyer suggested that Mulholland ask if he was free to leave. If the answer was no, then he could be considered to be under arrest. If he was free to leave, he should leave.
Mulholland and Soriano left — with the video.
Apology called for
“I’m not looking to pick a fight with anybody, so I don’t intend go back there until we have a reason to go back there,” Hoppel said Friday.
Reporters are often denied access to scenes, usually of breaking news, but at Grant Cottage the general public is allowed to come and go as it pleases, Hoppel said.
“There are often attempts to limit our access to things. I’ve never see it to this extent,” he said.
The Department of Corrections issued a statement, accusing NewsChannel 13 of trespassing.
The Department of Corrections’ media policy states that permission from its public information officer is required when taking photographs while physically standing on any department property. Violators risk confiscation of their film. It is not clear whether that includes the access road, which also leads to Grant Cottage.
Corrections spokesman Tom Mailey said the department had no comment beyond its statement.
Cottage officials were sorry to see the episode mar coverage of the anniversary.
“I was very disappointed to see that the story had been hijacked by overzealous corrections officers. Then, the fact that we had 150 people there during two days, just faded into the past,” said Tim Welch, president of Friends of Ulysses S. Grant, the volunteer organization that operates the state-owned historic site.
“I used to work at CBS6 for a dozen years, so I’m sensitive to the notion that reporters have a right to be on public property and taking pictures. I was rather surprised that Mark was treated like that,” Welch said.
The New York State Associated Press Association issued a statement, condemning corrections officials for interfering with NewsChannel 13’s reporting on the impact the prison closing will have on the place where President Ulysses S. Grant died.
“While we understand that measures need to be taken to ensure prison security, we do not believe that security was in any way compromised by Channel 13’s reporting. There are no prisoners on site and the prison is to close within days,” said Post-Star Editor Ken Tingley, who is president of the association.
The association includes newspapers and radio and TV stations throughout New York served by the Associated Press.
Tingley pointed out that, even when the reporter agreed to change locations, the corrections officer told him he would not be able to return to the public historic site.
“The actions of the Department of Corrections officers were an infringement on their First Amendment rights to report the news,” he said. “We believe that the NewsChannel 13 crew is owed an apology and that news media across the state need to be assured by Department of Corrections officials and Governor Cuomo that this incident will be investigated and disciplinary measures taken to ensure that people’s rights to a free press are not infringed. This is the most recent example of the animosity and confrontational environment that state government continues to tolerate at all levels when working with news media.”
Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the media does not have the right to enter a prison and has to abide by the rules of corrections departments.
But it is likely that thousands of people have driven by Mount McGregor Correctional Facility on their way to Grant Cottage, he said, and many them would have had cameras and could have taken photos without being questioned.
“Why is it that the news media was treated differently, number one?,” he said. “And why is it there wasn’t a recognition of the obvious, that the facility is closed? There is no longer a security issue relating to it.”