Blogger and anarchist Josh Wolf isnít a traditional reporter, but heís been in jail on contempt of court charges longer than any U.S. journalist in memory.
By Dana Hull
Dana Hull (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.
Liz Wolf-Spada, the mother of blogger, freelance videographer, anarchist and activist Josh Wolf, has spent her son's long months in federal prison getting a crash course on the grand jury process and the need for a federal shield law to protect journalists. She's also been busy worrying.
"I'm very proud of Josh," Wolf-Spada says over lunch in Oakland, California, in late January after her monthly trip to the penitentiary. "But sometimes I wish I could be proud of someone else's son."
Wolf, 24, has been in the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, since September for defying a grand jury subpoena for video footage he recorded of an anarchist demonstration in San Francisco. He's been incarcerated on contempt of court charges longer than any U.S. journalist in modern history: On February 6, he eclipsed the 168-day record previously held by true-crime author Vanessa Leggett (see "The Vanessa Leggett Saga," March 2002).
At a time when a parade of prominent reporters divulged confidential conversations with sources at the trial of the vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Wolf's largely overlooked case has raised fascinating questions, chief among them whether he is "really" a journalist and who decides. But in an age when the distinction between objectivity and advocacy is increasingly blurred, and scores of citizens are generating content for mainstream media outlets, the definition of a journalist has become murkier, as have the legal and ethical obligations of both mainstream reporters and those working on journalism's fringes.
Wolf grew up in rural Wrightwood, California, in the San Bernardino Mountains north of Los Angeles. An only child, he was raised by his mom; his parents divorced when he was 3. At Serrano High School in nearby Phelan, he excelled in English, was active in the drama and music programs, and took journalism classes. "Our school district is very conservative, and Josh was always somebody who stood up for unique beliefs," says Serrano High English teacher Jill Henry. Wolf attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, but felt lured to the progressive politics of the San Francisco Bay Area. He transferred to San Francisco State in 2002, graduating from the psychology department in May 2006.
His mom is an elementary school teacher with cropped gray hair who speaks in the earnest, optimistic tones of someone who spends a lot of time with young children. She says her son always fought for what he believed in--including protesting a high school policy forbidding the students from wearing all black. "At the time he was really into punk and dying his hair different colors," she recalls.
It's easy to see how Wolf inherited a passion for leftist politics. Wolf-Spada, 58, is active in her local teachers union, idolizes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and spent months at a Zen retreat on the California coast to meditate against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Wolf is her maiden name. She never changed it and bequeathed it to her son. His middle name is Selassie, as in Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
The two are extremely close. Once a month, Wolf-Spada gets up at her home in Wrightwood before dawn, heads to the airport, flies to Oakland, rents a car and drives to the prison to visit for as long as officials allow. Throughout her son's incarceration, Wolf-Spada has been his lead spokesperson. In January, she attended the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis to spread the word about his plight. She talks to his friends. She takes orders for "Free Josh" T-shirts. She lobbied for a federal shield law on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., and regularly posts updates about his case on www.joshwolf.net.
"When Judy Miller went to jail, it was all over the papers all the time," she says of the former New York Times reporter who spent 85 days behind bars before reaching an agreement with Libby to testify about their conversations. "But Josh's case has gotten very little coverage nationwide. I don't know if it's because he's independent or because he's a blogger."
Wolf's transition from pure activist to advocacy journalist occurred during the run-up to the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. If you were opposed to the war, San Francisco was the place to be. Tens of thousands of people regularly marched in the streets: veterans and young parents, clergy members and anarchists, labor union members and local students. In the weeks before the war began, in March 2003, Wolf regularly joined friends at various anti-war demonstrations held throughout the city.
"I took to the streets of San Francisco. I was there as a participant," he said in a phone interview (prison officials have limited his interviews to 15 minutes via phone, rebuffing requests for face-to-face exchanges). But when Wolf returned home after one demonstration and watched the local news that evening, he felt like he'd attended a completely different event. The television reports overwhelmingly focused on a few isolated incidents of violence and the number of arrests made by police; he'd seen thousands of people behaving peacefully. "I felt the coverage was completely biased in a status-quo, pro-establishment perspective," Wolf says. "I decided to create a counterpoint for the coverage."
Wolf began documenting dozens of political and antiwar demonstrations, usually recording with his Panasonic DVX1000 video camera. He has amassed countless hours of raw footage of the city's ubiquitous protests. On July 8, 2005, Wolf taped an anarchist protest against the G8 summit then taking place in Scotland. It was fairly typical: A lot of white 20-somethings were wearing dark clothing and masks; some dragged newspaper boxes into the street to stop traffic. But law enforcement officials claim someone tried to set a police car on fire, and a police officer's skull was fractured when he was hit from behind.
Wolf had filmed much of the demonstration and posted some of the video on his vlog, or video blog, called The Revolution Will Be Televised. Some of the footage was also broadcast on local TV stations, which later paid Wolf for airing it.
A few days later, the FBI knocked on Wolf's door and asked for the entire tape, including outtakes that Wolf had never shared or posted on his vlog. Wolf refused to cooperate and called the National Lawyer's Guild. When a subpoena arrived in February 2006 asking Wolf to testify before a grand jury and bring all his video footage, Wolf again refused. He has said that he doesn't have any footage showing the officer being struck in the head and worries that the federal government wants him to identify people in the video.
"In seeking my testimony and unpublished material, the federal government is turning me into their de-facto investigator," said Wolf in a June 2006 court filing. "My journalistic activities will be blighted, and my reporter-subject relationship of trust with alleged anarchist protestors will be eviscerated. Protestors will refuse to speak with me and will deny me access to cover demonstrations; in fact, this has already occurred."
Federal prosecutors hold a different view. "Wolf videotaped a public demonstration where there may have been an attempt to set a police car ablaze, and where a San Francisco Police Officer's skull was fractured when he was hit from behind by a demonstrator," Luke Macaulay, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of California, said in a statement. "Six separate judges have now ruled that this office has issued a lawful subpoena for legitimate investigative purposes, and that the material and testimony in question should be provided to the grand jury."
California has a shield law that protects journalists from turning over their materials in state courts. But Wolf's case is in federal court because the San Francisco Police Department receives some federal funding. Even if Congress passes a federal shield law, which in mid-March had not yet been introduced, it's unclear whether it would apply in Wolf's situation; among the unknowns are his questionable status as a journalist and the lack of confidential sources in his case.
In a January court filing, prosecutors argued that more time in prison may help Wolf "realize that it is impossible to reconcile his imagination that he is a journalist somehow protecting 'contacts'..with the undeniable fact that there are no confidential sources involved in this case." Moreover, prosecutors added, Wolf's "protection of hypothetical 'contacts' is not only delusional but no reason for releasing him."
Wolf has limited mainstream media credentials--he wrote for his high school and college papers and interned at the Santa Barbara Independent--and he clearly identifies with the anarchists that he films. But the explosion of blogs and citizen-generated content is turning the traditional definition of journalism upside down. Independent bloggers were given official credentials to cover Libby's perjury trial. "To say I'm not a journalist doesn't hold any weight to water," says Wolf, who considers Thomas Paine a hero. "The fact that I'm very open and transparent about my views is a more trustworthy form of journalism. You can clearly pick out what my bias is going to be. You turn on Bill O'Reilly and are told there is no spin. But anyone with any sort of media literacy knows there's a bias."
A number of professional journalism organizations have rallied, with some reservations, to Wolf's cause. "The concern is really one of being an active participant in a news story versus covering a news story, and I don't know," says Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. "We have supported Josh and will continue to do so."
The Society of Professional Journalists, through its Legal Defense Fund, has paid some of Wolf's legal fees. The group's Northern California chapter named him a 2006 Journalist of the Year. The chapter has also implored House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to intervene to end his incarceration.
"This is a highly unusual situation," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Wolf's behalf. "Yes, he is a journalist. He sold his tape to a TV station. But some journalists have said that he's just an anarchist pipsqueak who's not really a journalist at all. And for the first time in all the years I've been sticking up for journalists, I'm put in a position of defending a reporter who self-identifies as an advocate for the cause he is covering..it's not an absolutely clean case. Most journalists try very hard to stay impartial when they're covering a story."
Dan Siegel, an Oakland attorney who has been actively involved in Wolf's case, takes a broad view of journalism. "To me, a journalist is someone who goes out and reports on things and shares his or her findings with others, whether you get paid or not," Siegel says. "He has intellectually placed this particular fight in a larger context, and he knows that what he does sets an example for others."
Wolf could remain in prison until the grand jury's term expires in July, and possibly longer if it is extended. He has no intention of backing down. He passes the time by reading whatever he can get his hands on and writing in his journal. Friends and supporters have sent books, and he gets the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sunday New York Times.
Wolf also has a small radio in his cell and listens to Pacifica Radio's liberal weekday show "Democracy Now!" which aired a segment about his case in mid-February.
Wolf doesn't feel that he's in danger: He usually has his own cell and enjoys talking to the other prisoners. Still, incarceration can be mind-numbingly boring, and he's frustrated that he can't search for coverage of his case on Google. He often writes letters to his mom and friends, who then post them on his blog, so he's basically blogging from prison by snail mail.
"I've become more resolved in a few key points," says Wolf, as our interview comes to a close. "I want to go to graduate school for journalism and get a better understanding of the history of journalism. And the issue of prison communication is very neglected within the entire justice system." He's embarked on a new project, PrisonBlogs.Net, which seeks to "provide prisoners with a voice, a public, and the sense of empowerment and the restored dignity this brings" by publishing their writing and art. Says Wolf: "I've got an exit plan."