Is Josh Wolf Defending Journalism?

By RJI on March 12, 2007 0 Comments

by Jeffrey Dvorkin, CCJ Executive Director

The blogosphere and the mainstream media (“msm”) are having another existential crisis and this time it’s for real, and once again, it’s over whether a blogger can be considered a “journalist.” Columnists from the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and others claim that Josh Wolf, a 24 year old blogger, self-styled anarchist and activist doesn’t deserve the title. They say he’s anything but a journalist. Wolf has been in jail in California for the past six months. His crime? Refusing to hand over “outs” (non-broadcast visuals) from the video he took at an anarchist demonstration. Wolf also refused to testify before a Grand Jury empanelled to investigate whether others should be charged. And he’ll stay in jail until he agrees to hand over the tapes and testify.

A Violent Demo

A demonstration was held in San Francisco in July 2005 to protest the G-8 meeting in Scotland. It turned violent and during the melee, Peter Shields, a police officer, had his skull fractured. Three people have been charged. A police cruiser was also set on fire when a flaming mattress was placed underneath. Josh Wolf was there and he videotaped it all. Federal prosecutors went after Wolf to force him to hand over his video. They also took the case away from the local district attorney claiming that since federal money supports local law enforcement, they have a right to prosecute. Critics claim the federal presence is an attempt to intimidate journalists. The prosecutors say they want the video to identify any others who could be charged. Wolf refused to hand over the tape (much of which was aired on local newscasts, on community cable channels and on Wolf’s own blog). He claims that to do so would compromise his relations with the activist community which he openly supports. In short, Wolf says he is protecting his sources.

Similarities with Libby?

Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Josh Wolf do not, on the face of it, have a lot in common. Libby is of course, the former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney who was found guilty on four charges of lying to a Grand Jury empanelled to discover who leaked the identity of a CIA employee whose diplomat husband had gone public in his opposition to the war. Libby’s crime was not that he or others with whom he worked tried to undermine opposition to the war in Iraq. That may be an indictment and a trial for another time. Libby’s trial called a number of prominent Washington journalists to testify about their off-the-record conversations with Libby. These journalists who were subpoenaed all agreed to testify.

“…choir of singing journalists”

Professor Edward Wasserman is the Knight Professor of Journalistic Ethics at Washington and Lee University. Recently he wrote in the Miami Herald that Tim Russert, Judith Miller and others were participants in “the grandest choir of singing journalists in the history of the late, great First Amendment.” Wasserman added that “what happened is that these journalistic heavyweights -- and their employers -- just didn't have the stomach for a fight. Meanwhile, bantam-weight blogger Josh Wolf languishes in jail to protect some ordinary people and a principle: That reporters have to be able to assure people that they're independent, that they'll stand up to bullying, that they won't be dragooned as helpmates to police, prosecutors or grand juries.”

“Free Josh Wolf”

Wolf has few supporters in the MSM. But in the blogoshpere, he has achieved heroic status among bloggers including “Attytood” and Mark Phillips at freeyournewsroom.com. They consider Wolf a First Amendment martyr and latter day pamphleteer, not dissimilar to Tom Paine and other American revolutionary heroes. Wolf may not be everyone’s idea of the traditionally trained or academically anointed journalist. But these days, who is? The definition of a journalist is becoming increasingly ambiguous.

Defining and Defending a Journalist?

Journalists used to be defined by the institutions that hired them. Freelancers were similarly defined because they had a track record of publications that would regularly print or broadcast their reporting. New technologies have changed that easy labeling. News organizations would also traditionally back their journalists (“We stand by our story”) and refuse to permit their journalists to be questioned without a warrant or a subpoena. In the newsroom where I worked, whenever the police called to ask for the “outs,” news management would tell them (more or less politely) to get a warrant. Management believed that to do any less would leave an impression in the minds of the public that journalists were basically police agents and that reporters had an unspoken agreement always to cooperate. There were exceptions to that rule. If a reporter had advance information that a crime was going to happen, that reporter had and still has, I believe, an affirmative obligation to inform the police, as would any citizen. Wolf and his blogger allies don’t have the advantages of working with enlightened management and a large staff of lawyers. Indeed, many bloggers think that working for a large news organization inhibits their ability to report the story as they see it. As a result, they are forced to hope that their rights under the First Amendment eventually will be protected and that hopefully, other journalists will see that their own rights are equally under assault. So far, few journalists attached to large media organizations have said anything one way or another about Wolf’s predicament. Mark Twain reportedly said that “you don’t get into a fight with a man who buys printer’s ink by the barrel.” But if as Professor Wasserman suggests the mainstream media is now unwilling to get into a fight for its rights, then I fear that the media will increasingly have to rely on the Josh Wolfs of this world to defend them.