Josh Wolf, a professional associate whom I consider a friend, was recently released from prison. His case touched on a number of issues regarding freedom of speech in the age of online video, and I’ve taken a moment to reflect on his story and its implications.
Why did a video blogger go to jail for seven months in the aftermath of an attack on a police officer? For nearly a year, the Department of Justice has spent resources pursuing a fruitless case, and the news media couldn’t decide between labeling Josh Wolf a journalist or an anarchist — the assumption being that one has different rights to craft a media message than the other.
While the technical hurdles to create, publish and distribute video widely are easily cleared, the legal and ethical course isn’t a straight track, and freedom of speech may be losing ground in the race. If you’re shooting video you may have the right to remain silent if implicated in a crime, but your camera might not.
Did Josh win? It certainly felt great to hear Josh’s friend and press advocate Julian Davis say [MP3] that he threw a “knockout punch” as Josh approached the podium at his release press conference this week. And while Wolf’s speech suggested it wasn’t ever about the tape — he explained to me later that he had planned to release the tape upon his own, regardless — I’m not so sure.
All the prosecutor got out of him was the tape from his camera and the same statement he probably would have given as a witness on the scene. They couldn’t force Josh to name anybody in the videotape under oath, and allowed Wolf to keep and publish the footage. A young and confident media veteran is back on the streets vowing to “commit journalism.” But the very right to edit, the right not to publish, may have been lost.
At the press conference, there were numerous rounds of applause from the assembled coterie of hacks and papparazi, myself included. Because even the professional journalists knew Wolf’s release didn’t just stand for “bloggers,” but for the practice of gathering news.
But I realized this wasn’t necessarily the glorious victory for free speech that I’d hoped while speaking to Allen Martin of CBS 5 before he filmed his segment outside a gathering of supporters, including myself. When I asked about industry practice regarding subpoenaed footage, he said that raw footage was kept about a week “and then we recycled the tapes.” Only the footage that aired was available to attorneys in court cases. “Now we’re posting all this raw footage.”
The problem with raw footage is that it’s never the whole story, though it can certainly be a very valuable part. And while the process of mediating the published message certainly gives near total room to alter the message through editorialization, it’s a critical process when attempting to tell a complete story — or at least your side of it.
Now that the footage is publicly available, its cold neutrality plays into the hands of Josh’s critics by presenting an easily caricatured image of the black clad anarchist youth set to destroy society. It can’t provide the context linking it to worldwide anti-globalization efforts, or the history and elegance of the anarchist philosophy expressed by Noam Chomsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman and Mikhail Bakunin.
It’s just raw footage of overly enthusiastic kids in a struggling neighborhood suddenly finding themselves with a tactical superiority over the most direct manifestation of state power and taking advantage. It doesn’t show the crime being investigated, it doesn’t show the thousands of protesters who gathered peacefully earlier in the day, it doesn’t show the dozens of perfectly peaceful evenings spent chanting and waving signs I’ve seen those very same anarchists at over the years in San Francisco and Oakland.
Josh’s footage was treated differently from the start. He had to fight for his copyrights when local stations aired his edited piece, in order to get paid as any freelance cameraman would. When the local District Attorney seemed disinclined to prosecute based on the evidence on hand, Federal prosecutors moved in to claim jurisdiction and, with such a weak case, seized on the one person they could prove was there.
At the small celebration, videobloggers turned their cameras on each other in an effort to make sense of the situation. Having a cigarette with Wolf outside the bar, a friend came over to let him know that State Assemblyman Mark Leno couldn’t make it, but sent his support. In a speech at a fundraiser for Josh in December, Leno updated the audience that officer Peter Shields, attacked in the melee was recovering.
But that wasn’t even the case being investigated by the grand jury, and Josh eventually signed a statement denying he’d never even witnessed any violent crime or attempted arson. If Josh had been shooting footage of base jumpers trespassing to leap from a building for Current TV, would he be accused of hiding behind journalistic privelege to avoid being labeled an accomplice? If every message we receive from mainstream media didn’t equate anarchist political philosophy with antisocial violence, would he have had his credentials as a reporter questioned?
The message sent is that telling the stories of people who question the benevolence of global corporate capitalism is tantamount to sedition by association; that all cameras are mere evidentiary tools; that you don’t ultimately have any right to mediate their output when a court comes calling; and that the cases taken up and decisions reached by those courts flutter in the wind of political patronage, vindictive bureaucrats and the public perception metrics machine of pollsters and pundits.
Photo by Steve Rhodes.