Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Josh Wolf, Citizen [Journalist?]

"It was journalism to the extent that I went out to capture the truth and present it to the public." … "It has nothing to do with whether or not I'm employed by a corporation or I carry a press pass."
-- Josh Wolf
Is that enough? Is it even the right argument?

Wolf, a videographer and blogger, spent nearly eight months in jail for refusing to cooperate with federal prosecutors who wanted him to give up video of a protest he took and testify before a grand jury. It was said to be the longest contempt-of-court term ever served by someone in a media-related case (though because his status as a journalist is disputed even that claim is controversial.) Wolf was released yesterday after he agreed to give up the video – he posted it in it’s entirely on his site – and answer two written questions from prosecutors.

Being too inclusive, by lumping in those whose credentials and commitment are disputable, creates a new jeopardy to journalists whose credentials are not in dispute. This is probably why there hasn’t been much support for Wolf in the MSM world, for fear rather than loathing.

Wolf's cause, at least from his perspective, was one of fundamental press freedom. He considers himself a journalist and thus entitled to rights not enjoyed by non-journalists. There is no federal law specifying a journalist’s rights to not cooperate with authorities regarding their work product, and not every state – though a majority -- has such a law either. But there is a First Amendment, from which flows whatever protections journalists have from the chilling effect of official scrutiny and regulation.

So where does an enterprising and passionate person like Josh Wolf fit in?

Fair and Balanced? Who Needs It.

Wolf was working for nobody, and although he sold some of his footage to local TV stations he had no credentials from any media organization in advance.

But neither did Richard Engle, who dropped himself into Iraq as a freelancer and now is “perhaps the best-known television name and face reporting from Iraq, mostly for NBC” the New York Times says in a profile.

Wolf is unashamedly an advocate; his access to the protest was granted by the protesters, he says. He signs his blog posts “Insurgent.” He strays (to say the least) from accepted notions of journalism by writing things like
When the judge came to realize the support for my cause was growing and that I was unlikely to waver anytime soon, he ordered both parties to meet with a magistrate judge in the hopes we could reach a solution amenable to everyone.
Okay, okay -- that is a press release about his prison release (the amusingly titled "My First Public Statement as a Free Wolf"), not journalism per se. But I doubt the judge would see things this way. And while it's one thing not to be fair or balanced it's another to ascribe to someone thoughts and motives.

Does this disqualify Wolf? Interestingly, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel do not include the concepts of “fairness” or “balance” as one of the nine precepts to the craft in, “The Elements of Journalism.”
"Why these nine?,"Kovach and Rosenstiel ask in the book's introduction. "Some readers will think items are missing here. Where is fairness? Where is balance? After synthesizing what we learned, it became clear that a number of familiar and even useful ideas -- including fairness and balance -- are too vague to rise to the level of essential elements of the profession.”
Is Wolf a journalist? Maybe.

A few years ago the best hope for a guy like Wolf would have been to try to get the interest of someone who would be able to publish his material. Some special lucky person who owned a printing press. He might have had to argue that selling some clips to a TV station was a blanket endorsement of his journalistic credentials. He probably would not have been successful since media companies get material from civilians all the time and do not casually invite them to into their umbra.

But the emergence of a disruptive technology which makes it possible for anyone who aspires to be a journalist do journalistic things has blurred the line of who is who. Even someone working alone, as an advocate, without the promise of backing from a news organization can be considered a journalist now. And if Wolf was working under the auspices of a place like Assignment Zero (full disclosure: I am a volunteer editor there) that would almost certainly add weight to his arguments.

So Is Wolf a journalist? "Maybe" is the best I can muster from this distance. But that is better than "no." If Wolf consistently engages in journalistic enterprises and abides by the basic tenets of journalistic integrity the answer is probably "yes." This is a tricky area because it is impossible to quantify such fudges as “consistently engages.” And would any transgression from “the basic tenets of journalistic integrity” disqualify one as a journalist? Stealing one quote isn’t likely to get you fired and cause your company to implode.

The Downside of Inclusion

But being too inclusive, by lumping in those whose credentials and commitment are disputable, creates a new jeopardy to journalists whose credentials are not in dispute. And they have enough to worry about without defending strangers who assert "I am just like you!" This is probably why there hasn’t been overwhelming support for Wolf in the MSM
world, for fear rather than loathing.

I strongly (perhaps naively) believe that a trust imperative exists for journalists working for media companies – that both have everything to lose by not being honest – and that this dynamic does not necessarily exist for citizen journalists, whose ranks can be infiltrated by manipulators masquerading as reporters.

So is Wolf doing himself or anyone any good by seeking to cloak himself as a journalist? Wolf possessed no secrets and his full video appears to offer nothing of value to the police. He promised confidentiality to no one, but says of the prospect of being asked the identity of any protester: "I could not answer that question before the grand jury. There were various promises made, both directly and indirectly."

Beware the Cameraphone-Wielding Civilian


There is a greater danger than journalists being hauled before official proceedings to dissemble their work, and Wolf should have been fighting for them (us): it is the prospect of citizens becoming targets for officials because they take pictures and videos. France even recently passed a law that criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists.

Since "professional journalists" are easily outnumbered by cameraphone-wielding civilians the danger is clear: disable your sources and things don’t get reported.

Wolf may aspire to be a journalist, or he may be one. But either way he is a citizen with the right to associate with whom he pleases and take pictures in public places of willing subjects. What he takes is his – to keep, sell, burn, give away.

At what point does any of that empower the state to demand that he share, or lose his liberty?

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