Wolf Contretemps Raise Question: Who’s a Journalist?
By Rebecca Rosen Lum, Media Workers Guild
April 6, 2012
The forces that conspired to imprison blogger Josh Wolf pose a continuing threat to journalists, First Amendment Project attorney Jim Wheaton told an audience at a Pacific Media Workers Guild event Tuesday.
The Guild freelance unit hosted “Activist Blogger: the Josh Wolf Story,” a video and panel discussion including Wolf, Wheaton, and filmmaker Donna Lee.
Wolf spent 226 days at the federal detention center in Dublin between August 2006 and April 2007 – an experience he describes as “more boring than brutal” — for refusing to surrender raw video footage and give testimony to a federal grand jury about a Mission District demonstration in July 2005.
One of the questions asked the panel was how the federal government came to be involved, thus skirting the protections of the state’s shield law.
A police car was burned that night and an officer badly hurt, but at the time Wolf was filming a tense confrontation between police and demonstrators over the restraint of a man who had been thrown to the ground (an officer can be seen pressing his foot onto the man’s neck). The state’s shield law barred San Francisco police from demanding the footage, which they hoped to use to identify participants.
However, law enforcement made the case that because a federal grant helped pay for police cars, including the one that burned, the FBI had jurisdiction.
The lack of a federal Shield Law continues to make journalists vulnerable to subpoena, searches and seizures– an issue unlikely to be resolved given the heightened rhetoric accompanying the “war on terror,” Wolf told the audience at the San Francisco Public Library.
Much of the film focuses on the debate over who is a journalist, with San Francisco Chronicle editor John Diaz comparing Wolf favorably to the publishers of the nation’s early broadsheets, and critics such as conservative columnist Deb Saunders branding Wolf “a journalist in his own mind” since he was not the employee of a news gathering organization and bound to a set of standards including impartiality.
“By that standard neither Michael Moore nor Michael Pollan are journalists,” Wheaton said. “I never want to hear the question again, ‘are bloggers journalists?’”
The mantle belongs to anyone who gathers information, compiles it in a format that is transmissible and disseminates it to a “willing audience,” he said.
The issue is timely, given the increasing number of news professionals working as freelancers. Oakland police recently arrested political cartoonist Susie Cagle while she covered an Occupy demonstration, dismissing her freelance media credentials as ersatz.
Not all the news about news gatherers is bad, Wheaton said. A California Supreme Court ruling gutted a law that required law enforcement to seek a search warrant before searching a reporter’s cell phone , but then was trumped by legislation. Written by state Sen. Mark Leno, the law sailed through the Assembly on a unanimous vote.
Lee, who met Wolf during his run for mayor of San Francisco (he snagged 2,000 votes), shot “Activist Blogger” in about three weeks. The film is finding favor at journalism and law schools, where it engenders lively discussions about constitutional protections and free speech issues.
Wolf eventually made a deal with federal prosecutors. He agreed to share the footage, which he said showed nothing useful to them. In exchange, he did not have to testify.
Moderating the panel was journalist, free speech activist and Guild freelance board member Rick Knee, who also appeared in the film.