Josh Wolf, the blogger who has spent some six months in prison for refusing to hand over a video he took of a violent July 8, 2005, protest in the Mission District of San Francisco to a federal grand jury, is not a journalist.
He is a blogger with an agenda and a camera, who sold a "selected portion" of the video of the demonstration, which left a San Francisco police officer with a fractured skull, to KRON-TV. The day after the melee, Wolf called himself on his videoblog an "artist, an activist, an anarchist and an archivist." He does not work for a news organization. He does not answer to editors who fact-check. I do not understand why newspapers -- including The San Francisco Chronicle -- refer to him as the "longest-imprisoned journalist" in America.
San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno, who has spoken at Wolf fundraisers, told me, "I think he, and those who are doing similar kind of work, is in the process of redefining what a journalist is relative to 21st century technology." In this brave new world, no definition is sacred any more. But a camera and a Website do not a journalist make, any more than shooting a criminal makes a vigilante a cop.
Wolf likes to put himself in the company of real journalists, such as The Chronicle's Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who risked going to jail in order to protect their confidential source in the BALCO story. But unlike Fainaru-Wada and Williams, Wolf had no confidential source agreement. He was filming public protests -- those protesters had no expectation of privacy.
Because he can't hide behind a confidential source agreement, Wolf has had to get creative. So, in a friend-of-the-court brief, the ACLU warned that if Wolf is viewed by anarchists and antiwar groups "as cooperating with the government, he will no longer be able to perform his vital role of covering these groups."
Wolf's actions, however, make a mockery of the ACLU argument. Wolf offered to show the outtakes of his video to a federal judge, just to prove that the video does not depict the police attacks in question. The judge refused.
I do not support the feds' action of putting Wolf in prison for some six months while they seem to be fishing for evidence. As Leno noted, "I think it's important for people to realize that this man has been held in federal prison, he has never been charged with a crime and never been convicted of a crime, and they are treating him like a very dangerous criminal."
Readers, therefore, should ask whether jailing Wolf for months is worth the cost to the taxpayers. He attacked no one. It is not even clear that his video implicates anyone -- or that investigators could not use some other footage to find out who attacked two city cops and damaged their patrol car. Then there's the question as to whether the U.S. attorney even has jurisdiction here, even if the SFPD does receive federal funds.
Peter Shields, the San Francisco cop who was out of work for a year after his skull was fractured in the incident, has little problem with Wolf's incarceration. Shields also is none too happy that the San Francisco supervisors "immediately" mobilized to show support for Wolf's cause. "Why couldn't they do that to find who hit me?" Shields asked over coffee Monday morning.
Shields took Spanish classes so that he could better serve the diverse Mission District where he is stationed. He was furious to see the activists, who say they support the poor, trashing a vibrant, diverse working-class neighborhood during the protest. When he arrived on the scene, he said, "they were destroying property. They were endangering lives."
What if he were attacked not because he is a cop, but because he is a gay man? Shields, who is gay, said people here would be "furious." He added, "If this chaos happened in the Castro, there would not be this hoopla, if you will, around the Josh Wolf videotape." But there is no public outrage, he added, "just because I put on a uniform."
Alas, in the Special City, attacking a gay man is a hate crime, while attacking a gay cop can be a cause celebre.