View from the fray
Chipping away at what’s left of press freedom
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
–U.S. Constitution, First Amendment
Josh Wolf, a video-blogging 24- year-old, is in federal prison. Wolf’s plight should chill the bones of any freedom-loving citizen on the left, right, top, bottom, center or fringe.
To rate an indefinite stay in the pen, Wolf engaged in citizen journalism, collecting footage from a San Francisco protest held while the Group of 8 (world leaders from the most powerful nations) convened in Dublin in 2005. When authorities wanted Wolf’s raw, unedited video footage to investigate a possible crime, he wouldn’t give it to them.Wolf has a video blog, “The Revolution Will Be Televised” at www.joshwolf.net. He doesn’t get paid. He simply cares about telling stories ignored by the so-called mainstream news. As Peter Laufer, a former news correspondent for NBC, writes at Guerrilla News Network, Wolf is “one of the critical foot soldiers in a vital army of news reporters out there in our midst trying to chronicle what’s going on in the world."Wolf recently graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in psychology. His videos document an America that many people don’t want to see. One depicts interviews with college-age students arrested for protesting. The result wouldn’t air on CNN or Fox News: Idealistic 20-somethings talking about being humiliated and brutalized by police using pain compliance techniques. The activists show bruises and wounds they attribute to police beatings.
During the 2005 protest, officials say an SFPD cruiser was damaged. According to a report in the Bay Guardian, police haven’t released estimates on how much damage was done to the car, if any. Nonetheless, Wolf’s video was demanded. Wolf refused to comply.
In an ideal world, a watchdog media would be writing pesky stories about law enforcement, documenting any possible abuses committed by those in authority. That’s what Wolf did.
Reporters do not collect information for police departments. Any ideas about truthful journalism are flushed when reporters become happy public relations liaisons for authorities. Maybe that’s already happened—which is why Wolf is compelled to do his work.
Wolf maintains his video does not contain information regarding the alleged vandalism. And California’s shield law ensures reporters won’t have to comply with demands to cooperate with officials. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t cover Wolf—not because he’s unaffiliated with a major recognizable media outlet but because a police car was damaged, making the alleged crime a federal one. Since no federal shield law exists to grant reporters freedom to pursue truth without fear of incarceration, Wolf is in prison without bail. Bloggers be warned.
The San Francisco Chronicle ran an editorial headlined “Free Josh Wolf": “The really ominous element of the government’s argument is the notion that a journalist can be compelled to turn over raw material—be it notes or video outtakes—at the government’s whim. If that standard can apply to Josh Wolf, it can be used against CNN, NBC, Fox News or any independent journalist who is conducting an investigation or trying to record a chaotic event. Journalists are not agents of the government.”
I recently heard syndicated columnist Molly Ivins speak at a conference for journalism educators where she recruited missionaries for the First Amendment.
“They stuffed all the important stuff into the First one,” she said. “The Fourth is gone, and parts of several others are missing. … We will have nothing left of freedom if the First goes.”