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.


Paul Levinson said...

Excellent post - I agree completely!

ktyranski said...

Great job Josh! I enjoyed it very much!

StephaniePisces said...

I, for one, am turning increasingly to blogs for interesting takes on news events. That's not to say I use blogs as a primary source for information, but I do get sick and tired of the "fair and balanced" reporting that occurs in the mainstream media. (Read: totally slanted toward corporate interests.)

I'm a firm believer that bloggers are protected by the First Amendment. But if the Feds come banging down my door looking for you at 3 a.m., Josh, I'm giving them your name, address, and Social Security number. I mean, there's a limit to friendship, for Christ's sake.

Isobel said...

I totally digg it - all the way from Australia mate. Some great points Josh!

Anonymous said...

I am not a blogger. I don't have a webpage or even a gmail account. But I have an opinion. First, I'd like to clarify the things that would impair my objectivity. I graduated from the Columbia University School of Journalism and Nicholas Lemann is now dean of that fine school. And print journalist kinda have a beef with blogging because if the info is so good on blogs, why the hell pay a freakin' journalist--especially if all they are doing is spouting the World According to Dick Cheney?

But that does not mean I disagree. I do agree that online journalists and bloggers deserve the same rights as mainstream journalists. It seems, however, that you might mention that Miller did get jailed for refusing to give up her sources.

As a journalist, it was a chilling moment. Subsequently, I read a story in the New Yorker that explained that the precedent for allowing journalists to protect their sources was from a legal decision that interpreted the First Ammendment--rather than the First Ammendment itself. That's why some people think that they can send people like Miller and Wolf to jail. The messae being--give up your sources and get out of jail.

Here's a bit of the New Yorker article. Good reading.

"In 1972, for the first time, the Supreme Court addressed the right of journalists to protect their sources, when it decided Branzburg v. Hayes, a combination of four cases in which reporters had received grand-jury subpoenas. (Two of the cases involved the Black Panthers; the two others concerned drug dealers.)


"Branzburg was decided only a few months before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in breaking the story of the Watergate scandal, demonstrated the importance of protecting government whistle-blowers, and judges became reluctant to impose limits on journalists."

This is a case of a story well worth paying for (even though I found it for free doing a google search.) Ultimately, it comes down to trust. Can a blog develop the same contract with its readers, and conversely can a mainstream newspaper or magazine destory that trust by running bad stories--yes, and yes!

Ciao, from not a blogger.

Josh said...

Hey, n.a.b.,

I was aware that journalists' right to protect sources was not constitutionally protected, but I think there should be some sort of national shield law, of the kind that many states have (including CA, I believe--It was the government's contention in Wolf's case that he was an "activist" and not a journalist, as though the two are mutually exclusive). In any case, online journalists should fall under whatever laws govern the mainstream media. I should note that Wolf has since been released after cutting a deal, turning over his footage (which did not include any crimes being committed) to the authorities. I can't blame him, but it's a blow for the principles that I'm espousing here.

As for Judith Miller, my heart bleeds for her. I'm deeply moved by her determination to protect Scooter and Dick, no matter the personal cost. It was a bizarre situation. They essentially screwed her over, ruined her journalistic reputation by feeding her easily discernable disinfo which she reported as credible "highly sourced" info, and then she (not Robert Novack, the columnist who actually outed Valerie Plame) gets sent to jail for protecting them (on principle (?) I guess). In any case, she played a great big role in getting us into this horrific war. If she was any kind of journalist, it's possible we might not be in Iraq right now. With great power comes great responsibility, I think they said in one of the good Spider-Man movies.

In any case, I appreciate the comments, and we all know who you are!!!