The vanishing art of standing firm

February 29, 2007

Josh Wolf is an activist and freelance journalist who videotaped a small anti-globalism demonstration in San Francisco in July 8, 2005. The action protested the G8 summit in Scotland, where representatives of the richest countries were talking economic policy. The protest was led by activists who believe globalization demolishes protections for the world’s most vulnerable and deepens the gap between rich and poor.

That particular evening, the protest got rambunctious, several demonstrators were arrested, a city policeman was smashed in the head and a firework was set off underneath a squad car.

Wolf edited his video and posted it on his website. Most of it is well-paced but boilerplate footage of demonstration clamor, though it includes a dramatic sequence of a cop subduing one protestor with a chokehold. Portions of Wolf’s video showed up on local TV news, for which he was paid.

Then the real fun started, and Wolf is now in federal prison for refusing to talk to a grand jury that’s demanding he turn over his raw tape and testify about demonstrators he interviewed.

It isn’t clear what’s driving the Wolf affair and why a minor fracas involving city cops and a handful of anarchists is in federal court anyway.

One plausible theory is that because California — like most other states — has a shield law that enables journalists to withstand legal pressure to identify confidential sources, authorities wanted the case moved to federal court where journalists have no statutory protection.

To do that they scraped together the dubious notion that because the police car that sustained minor damage had been bought, in part, with federal anti-terrorism funds Wolf’s testimony might concern a federal crime. Related to terrorism. Or something.

Wolf, 24, has been behind bars nearly six months, said to be longer than any other journalist in U.S. history. The previous record was held by another journalist you never heard of, Vanessa Leggett, who spent 168 days in federal lockup in 2001 for refusing to turn over notes for a book about a murder in Texas.

Maybe it’s a cheap shot, but the contrast is irresistible between their dogged refusal to talk and the glamorous parade of marquee journalists queuing up in Washington to testify at the trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s ex-chief of staff.

Libby is accused of lying about whether he tried to discredit an influential administration whistleblower, ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, by whispering to journalists that Wilson had benefited from nepotism: Wilson allegedly had been sent on the critical assignment where he learned that a key justification for the coming Iraq war was rubbish at the suggestion of his wife, an undercover CIA officer.

That CIA connection was the petty little secret with which Libby and other administration hacks furtively tried to defame Wilson. Libby denied leaking it to reporters.

Whether that denial was a lie is the big deal that journalists at Libby’s trial are filing in to testify about.

The witnesses are the cream of the profession, the men and women who cover the most powerful agencies of government for the most influential news media in the world: NBC, The Washington Post, Time magazine, The New York Times.

Nearly all have now testified about conversations that started out as confidential talks. They later wrestled waivers from their confidential sources —waivers granted amid intense prosecutorial pressure  and they’re happily sharing the chummy, once-secret talks they had with the political elite.

They’ve become the grandest choir of singing journalists in the history of the late, great First Amendment.

To be sure, honoring confidentiality agreements is not a duty of such transcendent importance that it must be served at all costs. Other obligations may matter more. I’d say exposing a deceitful, high-level campaign to panic this country into war and crush dissent would qualify.

But that’s not the Libby trial. And submitting to a petulant prosecutor who’s annoyed by the evasions of a second-tier courtier hardly warrants abandoning a cornerstone of press independence.

What happened is that these journalistic heavyweights — and their employers — just didn’t have the stomach for a fight.

Meanwhile, bantam-weight blogger Josh Wolf languishes in jail to protect some ordinary people and a principle: That reporters have to be able to assure people that they’re independent, that they’ll stand up to bullying, that they won’t be dragooned as helpmates to police, prosecutors or grand juries.

The cruelest irony is that Wolf’s tormentors deny he’s a journalist at all. To me, if he’s independently gathering publicly significant information for the purpose of making it widely known, he’s a journalist.

The question is what we call the songbirds at the Libby trial.

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