Josh Wolf: journalist or activist?

by Kevin Sites, Yahoo HotZone

Whether he is a journalist or not, as many debate, Josh Wolf believed strongly enough in the journalistic principle of protecting his sources that he was willing to spend seven and a half months in a federal prison being faithful to it.

Tuesday afternoon, he walked out of the Dublin Federal Correctional Institution in California a free man.

Wolf was in prison for refusing to hand over video he shot during a protest in San Francisco in 2005. In a deal brokered between his lawyers and federal prosecutors, Wolf posted the uncut video of the protest on his site,, gave prosecutors a copy, told them he had not witnessed any crimes and was released.

In exchange, prosecutors acceded to Wolf's key contention: that he not be made to appear before the grand jury and identify those on his videotape.

"Journalists absolutely have to remain independent of law enforcement,'' Wolf told reporters outside the gates of the prison. "Otherwise, people will never trust journalists.''

Just as Wolf became a poster boy for the debate of whether bloggers are actually journalists and deserving the same legal protections, his status as an Internet icon may get another boost as likely the first federal prison inmate to be released for posting a video to his website.

Wolf, who calls himself and activist and anarchist on another one of his sites, "The Revolution Will Be Televised," filmed a July 2005 San Francisco protest against the World Trade Organization which turned violent. A police officer suffered a fractured skull and there were allegations of attempted arson.

Wolf provided some of the footage to local television stations, but refused to give the raw outtakes to a grand jury.

The standoff led to Wolf being jailed and sparked a heated debate about whether an activist blogger deserved the same protections as a professional journalist.

I spoke to Wolf by telephone while he was still in prison a few weeks ago and asked him if his advocacy made him selective in what he videotaped at the protest. Would he turn off the camera to protect his friends? A partial transcript of our conversation follows.

Kevin Sites: If there had been a situation where you saw a protestor beating up a police officer, or you saw them committing arson, would you have shot that?

Josh Wolf: I wasn't there to shoot that.

Kevin Sites: No, but would you have shot that?

Josh Wolf: That's a question I would have made in that moment...

Kevin Sites: Well, that's what I want to ask you. If I asked you to take sides, if I asked you to take a side of journalism or activism, you know, which side are you taking here? Because you're asking for the protection of journalism yet you're also seeking to be an activist.

Josh Wolf: Would you not say that Thomas Paine was an activist for the Declaration of - or the independence of America and also...

Kevin Sites: But I would say that he would not be claiming to be journalist, he would be claiming to be an activist. That's all I'm asking you to do, is take sides. Are you claiming to be an activist or a journalist?

Josh Wolf: I don't. I see that advocacy has a firm role within the realm of journalism.

Kevin Sites: Right, but as an advocate, you have to be willing to allow yourself to be jailed and expect the consequences of your actions. As a journalist, you're asking for certain protections, you know, from those consequences. That's why I'm asking you, you know, which side do you want to step on at this point.

Josh Wolf: My role is to uncover the truth to deliver to the public. That is my number one accountability.

Kevin Sites: But that truth is through, as you said, a prism of your own political convictions.

Josh Wolf: The truth is biased by everyone's convictions, whether it's a corporate conviction of your employer, your own personal convictions that are left politically based from mainstream press perspective, or a more biased perspective [because of] which you won't be as open about as a journalist who does not put forward an impression that they are trying to be objective. If you watch the videotape, you'll see there are many things that make the protestors look bad and there are things that make the cops look bad. It is essentially a balanced report of what I saw. It's a bird's eye view.

Debra Saunders, a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, applauds Wolf's dedication, but doesn't believe he should be called a journalist.

"I think that you can be a blogger and be a journalist," Saunders tells me from her office at the Chronicle. "There are people who fit that [description], but when you're an activist cavorting with the people you're chronicling, then you are not a journalist."

Her own newspaper disagrees with that assessment and has supported Wolf on the Chronicle's opinion pages.

"The fact that Josh Wolf has strong political views does not disqualify him from being a journalist any more than the fact that I am an editorial page editor and have opinions disqualifies me from being a journalist," says John Diaz of the Chronicle. "The fact is, he was out at that rally, collecting information to disseminate to the public. I think that makes him a journalist."

Ultimately, Saunders says, it won't be journalists and bloggers who decide the issue, but the government.

"The courts are going to end up deciding who journalists are, because, unfortunately, this administration is really pushing the envelope in jailing journalists, and it won't end with the Bush administration," Saunders says. "It will get bigger as people point fingers in many ways, and that means the courts are going to decide who journalists are. You may not like it, but that's the way it is."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey