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Josh Wolf: Journalist?

Picture_162There are some good critical articles coming out about the significance of Josh Wolf's plight and what it means for the future of blogging and capturing images. Yahoo's Kevin Sites tries to make Josh choose: Is he journalist or an activist?

I like to compare what Josh was doing, and what many of us with cameras and blogs and pens do, to the scientific process. The first step is to observe phenomena in the quest to gather new knowledge.

Josh was committing a core act of journalism: Observing, documenting, and reporting on what he saw.

If CNN's Peter Arnett is performing the exact same function live from Baghdad, we would call that journalism. People are saying the difference is Josh Wolf's bias as an activist. But recall Peter Arnett was fired for having an anti-America bias. New York Times photojournalists are criticized for cavorting with the enemy in Iraq. Fox news, and many media outlets across the political spectrum, engage in some form advocacy journalism.

The whole enterprise of journalism is subject to some degree of bias. At least Josh Wolf is upfront about his perspective so we can put his reporting into context.

Michael Meiser writes about a perhaps more troubling question: What rights do we have to be secure in our property... particularly our videos and other intellectual property?

America needs a federal shield law to protect journalists, however we define them. We also need to look at the lack of due process in the federal grand jury system. Finally, we need to seriously ask: Does the government have a right to subpoena anything my eyes have seen?

. . .

In other news, YouTube has launched a citizen journalism channel called CitizenTube.

April 9, 2007 at 06:31 AM in Media, Videoblogging | Permalink


Found this piece thru Twitter. Well said, Chuck. Sites "frames the question" for a more controversial pundit position. I'm well over punditry and more into raw factoids m'self. Sigh.

Posted by: Jan / The Faux Press at Apr 9, 2007 7:15:06 AM

Rex raised concerns too, similar to conclusions in the SF Gate article. In this age of citizen journalism, couldn't everyone be considered a "journalist"? So how do we define it? And how do we carve out exemptions? I don't have the answers... it's just a lot more complicated these days.

Posted by: Jason at Apr 9, 2007 9:13:23 AM

It's quite a quandary, but perhaps we can simply define it by the act. If you're documenting something, you're engaging in some form of journalism and should be afforded some of the same protections - ?

Posted by: chuck at Apr 9, 2007 9:25:47 AM

Eyeteeth has a good survey this morning. I comment at the bottom with this basic point: if we want to call him a journalist, that's fine. But I don't think we see the consequences of doing this, and the scenarios we're suddenly protecting as first amendment cases. This one's gonna come back to burn us.

Posted by: Rex at Apr 9, 2007 11:33:10 AM

Nothing has fundamentally changed yet - subpoenas will continue to be issued for footage if its believed to contain incriminating evidence. And there is no federal shield law.

Don't you think the act of journalism, and showing a history of acting in that capacity, suffices? I think we have to look specifically at what Josh was doing - we can't avoid that question at all. This is a test for how we think about this and react to it. Enough people (and other journalists) thought Josh was doing something like journalism to come to his defense.

Posted by: chuck at Apr 9, 2007 2:33:27 PM

I think most people -- not journalists, not academics -- you know, normal people. Most people look at this and think: "If he's got something that could reveal who was a criminal, why shouldn't he hand it over?" I don't think there's much public sentiment supporting activists with cameras, just like most people don't think journalists should refuse to hand over their video.

I'll protect a source forever... but I'm a little more open to handing over of video in response to a subpeona.

Posted by: Jason at Apr 9, 2007 4:09:03 PM

Chuck: You're right, nothing has changed. I meant that if this thing had followed its logical course through the court system, the outcome would inevitably have been disappointing to everyone. It sounds like a strange comparison, but I really do think of this like Judith Miller in the Times: what seems like a First Amendment issue is a situation where you should be wary about waving that flag.

Anyway, I'm still frankly mystified by this scenario: 1) he holds a videotape that is purported to contain CRIMES on it, but 2) he claims first amendment protection while at a PUBLIC event that anyone could have taped, and 3) he refuses to give it to a grand jury but PUTS IT ON HIS VIDEOBLOG. This doesn't sound fishy? And it doesn't help that he sorta sounds like a crackpot at times -- he won't hand over the video because he thinks the government is going to identify people and target them? Seriously? Well, um, maybe... IF THEY'RE BEATING UP PEOPLE IN THE STREETS!

If you switched that whole scenario around and made Josh Wolf an anti-abortion activist, would the lefty blogosphere be rallying around this in the same way? Or what if it were, say, a news chopper that caught someone in a criminal act -- rape, murder? When is a camera just an objective viewer, and when is it wielded for journalistic activity? Could one make the same first amendment claim with a surveillance camera, as long as one proved it was recording activity that can't endanger its "secret sources"?

Maybe these seem like outlandish scenarios, but they're exactly the kinds of a questions the supreme court would ask if this had been booted up the chain. And that's my entire worry with this case: allowing an activist who doesn't want his friends to get in trouble call himself a journalist is going to bring down the whole house of cards that journalists have been fighting for.

Posted by: Rex at Apr 9, 2007 5:16:06 PM

Oh, and just to get it out there, a few things I agree with: 1) we absolutely need a federal shield law (though, again, I worry Josh Wolf makes this even harder to accomplish now), and 2) due process absolutely failed Josh Wolf. However, 3) I think the government has the right to subpoena you almost any time you've witnessed a crime -- the primary exception being if you have an explicit relationship as a journalist does with a pre-established source. I think if we slip in this belief, we're actually injuring our activist roots.

Posted by: Rex at Apr 9, 2007 5:32:40 PM