Monday, March 26, 2007

Josh Wolf and Internet Journalism

Josh Wolf, a longtime video blogger, has been in federal prison since August 1, 2006. This is the longest that an American journalist has ever been imprisoned for refusing to comply with a subpeona.

Wolf ran afoul of the feds after he posted footage of an anti-G8 rally in San Francisco to The feds subpoenaed Wolf and demanded he turn over all of his footage, claiming that there might be a criminal act (the burning of an SFPD police car) captured in the footage. Wolf insists that he did not tape the criminal behavior, and feels that the turning over the tapes would betray the activists he shot at the event.

Asked if bloggers like Wolf should be granted the same protections as mainstream journalists, Wolf’s lawyer, Jose Luis Fuentes, told Time Magazine (August 3, 2006), "All newsgatherers are theoretically protected by the federal and state First Amendment. In the context of free speech and newsgathering, all journalists are working for a democratic society whose very existence depends upon the free flow of information without government intrusion. Any attempt to draw a distinction is divisive."

The division Fuentes warns of seems to be one that too many journalists, perhaps threatened by the increasing popularity of internet news sites, and the seemingly moribund prospects for print journalism, are happy to embrace. In an article published in the New Yorker just days after Wolf’s imprisonment, (August 7, 2006) snarkily entitled “Amateur Hour,” Nicholas Lehmann scours the internet in search of crap, and unsurprisingly finds several examples of unimpressive online journalism. Bloggers may have certain disadvantages in terms of access, but to my view, Lehmann willfully overlooks the genuine advantages the internet has displayed in disseminating useful information.

“Short of an intensified cold war or some other cultural and political muzzle on dissent, we can expect a critical culture to continue as a voice in journalism and as a market for its products.”
-Michael Schudson, Discovering the News, p. 193

When Schudson was writing his classic book on modern journalism and the notion of “objectivity,” the “residue of reform” (93)—of the cynicism-inspired advocacy journalism of the Vietnam era—was still apparent in the journalism of the day.
Since then, the major news media have been completely taken over by multinational conglomerates. Stories that present these multinational corporations, their business partners, or their advertisers in an unflattering light are routinely suppressed, and there’s a subsequent chilling effect on mainstream reporters.

On top of that, in the post-9/11 environment of warmongering patriotic fervor (perhaps beyond any sort of “cultural and political muzzle on dissent” that Schudson could have imagined), the media have also been cowed by a secretive and hostile Bush administration. The recent PBS Frontline series, “News Wars,” offers accounts of the way the administration has intimidated journalists into toeing their line. The administration manipulated the mainstream media so effectively that in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, they were able, essentially, to anonymously plant stories in the New York Times (through the auspices of Judith Miller), which Dick Cheney could then authoritatively refer to on the Sunday talk shows while making his case for war.
So it’s important to consider the independence that the mainstream media gives up in exchange for access. No one in the White House press pool wants to be made an example of like Helen Thomas, who asked a few too many tough questions before it was fashionable to do so (i.e. before Katrina opened things up a bit) and was moved to the back of the line.

Bloggers, in most cases, don’t have to worry about pleasing corporate masters or losing access they never had in the first place, so they can be a truly independent and critical voice.

One can complain about their lack of accountability, but I don’t perceive a high degree of accountability on the part of the mainstream media either. After all, Judith Miller, in the aforementioned Frontline series, excuses her tremendously damaging water-carrying for the Bush administration by bemoaning the fact that “a reporter is only as good as her sources.”

Venues like Josh Wolf’s site provide a look at the growing discontent in America that the networks and newspapers repeatedly marginalize or ignore. These alternate views are every bit as valid as the middle-of-the-road consumerist values the media typically take for granted.

In addition to being more independent than the mainstream media, the internet also excels at providing a context for the news. Not only can one find links to reportage from different parts of the world (often differing tremendously in its depth and point-of-view from the American press), but one can find sources like which offers a detailed, carefully sourced timeline of events leading up to the current quagmire in Iraq. This is the sort of service that the mainstream media, with its focus on sensation, is disinclined to provide with any regularity.

As Paul H. Weaver, the author of News and the Culture of Lying, has pointed out, the typical form of a news story “incorporates its own bias…toward ‘events’ rather than processes.” This reinforces our culture’s propensity toward historical amnesia. Data of extreme relevance to the current state of affairs, including our government’s former support of the Muhajadeen and of Saddam Hussein, are glossed over in the service of brevity and “newsworthiness.” Online, one can find much more background on today’s news.

It’s clear to me that bloggers and internet journalists provide a legitimate and valuable news service. They may not be responsible to anyone but themselves and their viewers, but they are held to the same legal standard for truthfulness as “professional” journalists. They are culpable for libel just like their mainstream media counterparts, so there doesn’t seem to be a valid reason why they shouldn’t be granted the same legal protections. Josh Wolf may or may not have videotaped an illegal act. He is most definitely a journalist, and if we want to preserve the remnants of our free press, we have to begin by defending the legitimacy of his work.