By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Josh Wolf’s costly victory

Judith Miller testified. So did Tim Russert. But Josh Wolf, a blogger and freelance videographer, won a partial victory yesterday by walking out of jail without having to appear before a grand jury. The San Francisco Chronicle has the details.

Wolf spent seven and a half months behind bars rather than turn over unused footage of an anarchists’ protest he had covered in July 2005 and answer prosecutors’ questions about violent incidents he had witnessed. In the end, he agreed to give up the footage in return for not having to testify. He also posted it on his Web site.

In a statement given in front of San Francisco City Hall and reposted on his blog, Wolf, 24, said in part that he considered not having to testify more important than turning over the video:

Contrary to popular opinion, this legal entanglement which has held me in Federal Prision for the past eight months, has never been about a videotape nor is the investigation about the alleged attempted arson of a San Francisco police vehicle as the government claims. While it is true that I was held in custody for refusing to surrender the tape and that the justification for making a federal case out of this was the police car, things are not always as they appear. The reality is that this investigation is far more pervasive and perverse than a superficial examination will reveal.

When I was subpoenaed in February of last year, I was not only ordered to provide my unedited footage, but to also submit to testimony and examination before the secretive grand jury. Although I feel that my unpublished material should be shielded from government demands, it was the testimony which I found to be the more egregious assault on my right and ethics as both a journalist and a citizen.

Wolf’s case is about the right of journalists — never fully recognized, and under increasing assault in recent years — to protect their confidential sources and unused notes, video footage and other materials from the prying eyes of prosecutors.

Wolf’s case was especially egregious, as this Online Journalism Review story explains, because the investigation was shifted from state court, where Wolf might have enjoyed the protection of California’s shield law, to federal court, where there is no shield law. The argument — that a San Francisco police cruiser damaged by protesters was paid for in part with federal anti-terrorism funds — is so weak as to be laughable.

With his partial victory yesterday, Wolf did not succeed in changing the law. But he showed that a journalist — even an independent blogger whose journalistic credentials are not clearly established — can generate enough publicity that the authorities will eventually back down.

The Committee to Protect Journalists hails Wolf’s release; so does the Society of Professional Journalists.

In February, Amy Goodman interviewed Wolf for “Democracy Now!”

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  1. Don

    Good grief. Amy Goodman, the most innocent looking, muckraking threat to our nation. Are we really all going to hell in a handbasket?

  2. Peter Porcupine

    I’m confused.I thought after much argument that Media Nation had decreed that bloggers WEREN’T journalists?

  3. Dan Kennedy

    PP: You’re right. You are confused. But seriously, make your case and we’ll have at it. There’s certainly no question that Wolf was practicing journalism, regardless of whether he’s a journalist.

  4. Anonymous

    Um, Dan, explain to me why should Wolf be exempt from the usual judicial process that the rest of us are subjected to. Whether or not he is part of the MSM or a blogger.Presumably, he was witness to an action under investigation, and that’s why the authorities wanted, not only his original recordings, but also his testimony as to what he saw. He was a witness. What should shield him from testifying as to what he saw?That is a signficantly different issue regarding having to testify as to what or who told him happened. You might have an argument that there should be a shield as to that, but not as to what the witness actually–um–witnessed.If you are going towards the latter, you really are over-reaching. And, as far as I’m concerned, journalists going for the latter are over-reaching. If you are a witness to a possible crime, you are a witness, whether or not you are a journalist. It really is as simple as that.Over here in Germany, I’ve been reading the Der Spiegel section from January, 60 years of Der Spiegel. It’s interesting. In 1961 or so, the British occupation forces put Rudolph Augstein, then head editor of Der Spiegel (it means “the mirror,” and no it isn’t kind to Germans) and the entire editorial staff in prison because they refused to kowtow to the the British occupation. The Brits even had the temerity to occupy the Spiegel offices. I don’t know what the Brits were looking for, but the fact is that neither Augstein nor any of the other editors gave the Brits any information. Now, that is a fight for press freedom.**It also made Der Spiegel what it is. There were numerous demonstrations against the arrests and the Brit occupation of the editorial offices, that gave Der Spiegel more advertising than they could have hoped for otherwise.–raj

  5. Jon Garfunkel

    I agree with raj here, and I’ll sign my full name to it. I think the Wolf case is a stretch, and some of the defense by journo’s can be chalked up to closing ranks.What got me from Wolf’s comments was “it was the testimony which I found to be the more egregious assault on my right and ethics as both a journalist and a citizen.”Hold on there! As a *citizen*? As a citizen we are required to submit testimony to a grand jury. I’m not convinced that a federal shield law should be written as loosely as possible. If a case has been made for this, please point me to it.

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