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josh wolf

Wolf is author of the video blog The Revolution Will Be Televised. On July 8, 2005, he filmed a demonstration by the group Anarchist Action in San Francisco, planning to post the footage on his site. After the protest, the FBI sought out Wolf and asked to review his footage for evidence of crimes. Wolf refused to turn over his material, even after being subpoenaed by a grand jury. He was held in contempt and sent to federal prison for one month. At the time of this interview, Wolf was free, awaiting the ruling on his latest appeal; shortly after, his appeal failed and he was ordered to return to the Federal Detention Center in Dublin, Calif. He remains in jail and, having no further avenues for appeal, will likely serve until the grand jury's term expires in July 2007. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 10, 2006. [Editor's Note: After 226 days in jail -- having served more time than any other journalist in U.S. history -- on April 3, 2007, Wolf and prosecutors reached an agreement after having been ordered into mediation by the judge. The 24 year-old blogger was released from jail after he answered two questions about what he saw during the demonstration and turned over his videotape to federal prosecutors while simultaneously publishing it on his Web site. He also issued declared victory in a statement on his site, saying the agreement "leaves my ethics intact but actively serves the role of a free press in our so-called free society."]

You've been described a whole bunch of different ways in the clips that I read. How do you describe yourself?

I describe myself a lot of ways. I'm a journalist. I'm a documentary filmmaker. I've made some narrative films. I'm an activist. I wear a lot of hats. ... I'm also a video blogger.

What does that mean?

A video blogger would be someone who maintains a blog and puts video on it that they create. In much the same way [that] a newspaper is a medium for someone who writes for The New York Times or something, a blog is a different medium source -- an electronic medium where you control what goes on there without an editor or an organization that has to pay for the infrastructure to get that word out there.

And you've got a point of view. ...

... My point of view is probably that there's a lot of people expressing civil dissent right now, especially in the Bay area. And the mainstream media, the established media, doesn't always do the best job or the most comprehensive work in explaining why they're out there and what they're doing. It generally tends to focus on any particularly violent interactions that may have happened, maybe the number of people that are there, but it never really captures the essence of why they're out there marching down the street. So one of my points of view is to try to be a fly on the wall and bring those experiences to other people who can't attend the protest.

So your point of view is civil action, and the title of your blog is The Revolution Will Be Televised?

The title of my blog is The Revolution Will Be Televised, yeah.

That says a lot right there.

Right. It says a lot on several different levels. Obviously it's a reference to the Gil Scott-Heron [song], "The revolution will not be televised," and that the media will never cover those struggles. But once we can be our own media through creating blogs and getting the word out without having to rely on established companies, then the revolution can be televised in the same way that Gil Scott-Heron said it would not.

So it's political journalism.

Everything is political. I mean, ... 90 percent of the stuff on my Web site is perceived as political to everyone. But everything that one publishes has a political aspect to it. ...

But do you see yourself as being the opposite, let's say, of a right-wing blogger, a Fox News?

I would say that Fox News generally carries a bias with it, a bias that's less their reporters' or even their editors' than advertising interests and other corporate interests. And I of course also carry a bias. I'd say that mine is much more up front.

“One of the critiques about me not being a journalist is that I'm not objective. It's pretty clear what my politics are. But back when the First Amendment was written, when we guaranteed a free press, there was no such thing as objective journalism.”

My Web site is The Revolution Will Be Televised, so it's pretty clear where I stand politically, as opposed to other companies that try to cover it up. But most of my work is not editorializing to the extent that I'm not composing my opinion very often. Sure, it's there in a lot of my writing. That usually wasn't part of my page until I found myself without a video camera. But basically when you go out and you shoot something and you don't do interviews and you just capture the essence of what really went on, it's hard to say that that's not objective.

Let me read to you from the California shield law. It says that to qualify under the California shield law, you've got to be "a publisher, editor, reporter or other person connected with or employed by a newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication, or by a press association or a wire service, or any person who is so connected or so employed." Are you any of those things?

Well, one of them that you read was publisher. I don't know what the legal definition of publisher is, but to me, anyone who maintains a blog for news-gathering purposes is a de facto publisher by taking it upon themselves to be their own publisher.

The video that was used of this protest was purchased, or the rights [to] it were purchased, by several television news outlets, so to that end I am connected to these organizations as a free-lance stringer/photographer if you will. In the case of Apple v. Think Secret, the California Court of Appeals ruled that bloggers are considered journalists because it's not the court's place to decide what is and isn't a real journalist. Based on the California Court of Appeals' ruling, I certainly qualify [under] the California shield law, and I probably do on other reasons as well. …

Predominantly I'm a journalist who works as a volunteer journalist to get the word out on my Web site. I'm a free-lance person second to being my own publication, which is The Revolution Will Be Televised. To that extent, to say that I'm not a journalist because I don't get paid, you have to kind of hearken back to the First Amendment and when it was written.

One of the critiques about me not being a journalist is that I'm not objective. It's pretty clear what my politics are. But back when the First Amendment was written, when we guaranteed a free press, there was no such thing as objective journalism. It was only after Hearst and all the yellow journalism that created this scandal that we came up with journalism schools, that the idea of fair and balanced was around.

When the First Amendment was composed, if you wanted fair and balanced, you read the Federalist newspaper, you read the anti-Federalist newspaper, and then you balanced them yourself and decided what was appropriate. These pamphleteers and journalists like this didn't often work for large organizations. So in today's culture, it may be difficult to see me as a journalist. But I think in the 1790s, if there were blogs, they'd surely consider myself to be a journalist and covered under the First Amendment.

On the night of July 8, 2005, what was the protest about, and what were you doing there?

The protest on July 8 was facilitated by a group called Anarchist Action, in solidarity with those that were marching in Gleneagles, Scotland, against the G8 summit that was going on at the time. Like any protest, I was out there to document it, because I feel that the news media -- the established news media -- doesn't really capture the whole picture. And seeing as I'm not limited to a two-and-a-half-minute sound bite, I have the luxury of really trying to cover everything that I see and synthesize the experience down to other viewers. ...

You were out there on the street; you were covering this event. The U.S. attorney says that the crowd tried to set fire to a police car and did damage it. Is that what you saw?

... Basically what I saw was a cop choking a guy. I heard some comments about cars being on fire. At that particular point in time, this gentleman being choked was of much more importance, and I didn't even look up. By the time I walked past there, I saw some minor smoldering of a sign, and nothing to indicate that a cop car had ever been on fire or was ever beginning to burn at all.

And is that what you caught on videotape?

What I caught on videotape was the guy choking the person. Once that situation had been resolved, I had turned off the camera. You don't want to be filming ... walking down the side of the street. We've all filmed our shoes, and it's not really exciting footage. When I came over [to the police car], there was nothing really to film, and I continued on my way from there, so I don't really even have anything related to this incident. ...

Do you have anything that relates to the investigation of this crime?

Not as best as I can tell, but the government hasn't been all too forthcoming as to exactly what they're looking for.

So why do you think they want your video?

They're welcome to call us and explain exactly why they want our video, but they haven't done so. In terms of my fears about why they want the video, there's a number of things that they could be doing. One concern to me is that if SFPD property is considered within federal jurisdiction and not protected by state shield laws, then that means that schools such as UC Berkeley or any other public institutions, anything that happens on those campuses is not protected by state and local shield laws. Anything that happens on interstate highways is not at all protected by state and [local] shield laws. So suddenly this shield law, which is supposed to protect the entire state of California and 48 other states, stops being functional because there is some tentative connection to the federal government, at least as far as finances go, [for] almost anything. I think it's an opportunity for the federal government to decimate the protections afforded to journalists within these various states. That's one fear.

The feds may be saying they have jurisdiction because they paid in part for this police car in some fashion, right?

Their claim is that they give money to the San Francisco [Police Department]. However, according to a report by [journalist] Dan Noyes, the city of San Francisco's police department uses federal funds for training and purposes like that, and not for the purchase of patrol cars, so chances are there is no money invested from the federal government even toward police cars. So this connection they're saying is tenuous at best. …

How did you first find out that the FBI was interested in what you may have shot?

Oh, they just knocked on my door and were like, "Hey, can we talk to you?" ... It was probably three days after the event, maybe July 11 of 2005. I was sitting in my room on the phone with my mother and hear the doorbell ring. Come to get the door, and there's a guy in Bermuda shorts and maybe a Hawaiian button-down shirt and one of those accordion briefcase things. My first thought was: "This has to be a reporter. This big protest just happened. He wants to do a story. Maybe the L.A. Times or something. Sure, I'll talk to you." He was like, "Are you Josh?" "Yeah." "Can I talk to you?" "Sure."

At this point he flashes the FBI badge, just like in the movies -- opens it up -- and you're like, "Oh, the FBI's at my house." So instinctively, I immediately reach back and shut the door, only I don't have my keys, so I just locked myself out of my house with the FBI there.

Then suddenly another FBI agent comes from next door, and two SFPD investigators come from next door. Now there's four agents -- two local, two federal -- and they want to talk to me about what I witnessed. Immediately alarms are going off, but I don't even know what my rights are in terms of the federal authorities. If the police come and talk to you, [you can say], "Am I being detained?" "No." "OK. Well, then I have nothing to say to you." But I didn't realize I had the same rights when it comes to federal authorities.

So I proceeded to talk to them about everything I had already told the media, word for word, because if I've already said it on camera, it's already evidence. ...

But at the end of the conversation, they asked for the tape. I told them that I would pretty much need to speak to a lawyer first. ...

… What did the lawyer tell you?

Basically the lawyer told me that I was under no obligations to turn over any evidence at this point in time; that I shouldn't continue to speak to them; that I should contact both the police and the FBI and tell them that if they had any more questions, they should contact my lawyer, give them my lawyer's contact info. Then my lawyer informed them that I wouldn't be turning over this material at this point in time.

[Did the agents] contact you after you saw them?

Oh, they contacted me probably an hour after they finally left and were like, "Do have the tape?" And I was like: "I'm now being represented by a lawyer. If you have any further questions, you need to contact him."

... Then you got a subpoena.

Right. I received a subpoena, I think the beginning of January or somewhere in that range. The same two FBI agents that had stopped by the first time came back, and I was like: "Hey, guys, let me guess. You're here to give me a subpoena." And [I] took the subpoena, wished them a good day, and called my lawyer and said: "All right, so that subpoena for the federal grand jury? Yeah, we got it."

... Why not give them the tape?

If the police were to stop by and say, "We're investigating a jewelry thief; you mind if we look through your stuff to make sure you didn't steal these jewels?," would you just say, "Come on in"?

... The police are investigating a crime that took place, ... and they believe there's potential information that they need in order to not only potentially solve crimes, but also greater matters that they're concerned about ... -- terrorism, violence and demonstrations and so forth.

This is true.

Had they come to your door and knocked on the door and said, "You were there, and someone" -- let's say a civilian -- "had been seriously injured in the demonstration; we don't know by whom, we're trying to figure out who did it," and you had video, would you give it to them?

If I actually had video of a crime against a human being committed -- which I don't -- that would be a different situation that I would find myself in. More than likely, I would turn over evidence of something that I felt was a violent crime against someone that was unprovoked. I would have to use my judgment, balancing the need for reporters to have access against the need for people who are committing violent acts against people to be taken care of, if they are truly violent acts against people.

However, whatever happened with the assault on the police officer, I was nowhere near that. And as I've said before, this is an SFPD vehicle. It's not the San Francisco D.A. that's coming after me for this tape; it's the federal government. As far as I'm concerned, this should be a local matter. So it really is as much a states'-rights issue as it is the rights of journalists.

OK. Now the judge obviously didn't agree with you. ... What did he do?

The judge, Judge [William] Alsup, threw me in jail as of Aug. 1, denying me a 10-day stay and denying me bail pending appeal. I spent 31 days in jail, was released on Sept. 1 after the 9th Circuit ruled that my appeal was not frivolous or simply for delay and that there were actual pertinent issues being appealed. So I was released on bail.

About a week after that, the 9th Circuit Panel, which was a different panel at this point, ruled that my appeal wasn't enough or whatnot, and that I'm back as a recalcitrant witness once again, once again in civil contempt pending further appeal, and should remain on bail while those appeals are exhausted, hopefully.

... You don't have any confidential sources here, right?

The issue of confidential sources is a bit tricky, because although [there were] no direct interviews with confidential sources, there was a trust established between people involved in the organization that I was covering and myself into the fact that what I chose to release was what I chose to release, and that I wasn't an investigator for the state turning over piles of tape for fishing expeditions.

But isn't that exactly the same issue that was involved with Branzburg, where you had a reporter like Earl Caldwell, who was allowed, for The New York Times, into the offices of the Black Panther Party because they trusted him? He refused to testify before the grand jury, and they held him in contempt. And the Supreme Court upheld that.

Right. But it was a couple years later that the Supreme Court ruled around Rule 501, that common law can be established based on current law and not historical law. In the time since the Branzburg decision, several states have recognized essentially shield laws, whether in the form of [states] passing these shield laws or district state courts recognizing these protections and the importance of them. ... So although the Court is clearly more conservative now than it was at that point in time, the issues regarding local laws have changed to establish that there should be a common-law shield protection for journalists.

... Let me take you back for a minute: going to jail, going to prison. You ever been in jail before?

I spent a few hours at 850 Bryant [San Francisco County Jail #1] during mass arrests -- with everyone on the street, camera crews and all, got taken into the station, but never for anywhere near a month.

What did you expect?

The worst. I was absolutely frightened on my way over there. You know, the U.S. marshals are like, "Be sure to say good-bye to your mom now, because you're never going to see her again," and [they] take all your stuff, and you're stripped, and you're just like, "What the hell am I going into?"

Then one of the last things that you encounter before you're placed in the general population is they hand you a sheet of paper, and they're like, "Put down your contact point for who we should notify if you're killed while in jail." And you're just like: "OK, wait. It's federal jail. All the murderers are in the state system. I should be OK." But you're just kind of -- it's the unexpected.

The only exposure you have is shows like Oz, so you're expecting this horribly brutal environment, and it really wasn't that bad in this particular facility. The guards treated us like humans. All the guys were pretty cool. It was a mellow environment. Played Scrabble, watched TV, played cards, wrote a lot of letters. Other than the fact that the air was just like a jet airplane all the time, and you were stuck there all the time except for one hour on the weekdays when you got fresh air, other than that sort of claustrophobia, it was really a bearable situation. Certainly not anything that I would wish upon anyone, but not nearly as frightening as stories would have you believe.

It must have been a little difficult to explain to your fellow inmates why you were there.

Not really. The federal system is filled with people who are offered deals to testify against other defendants. So a very crude simplification of this situation is I refused to turn over a tape that the government thinks has evidence on it, and whether or not there's anything on the tape and the fact that I'm there for [a] principle was kind of not an issue to them. So the fact that I was refusing to turn over a tape, refusing to budge under the government's coercive power, was something that they easily respected. The details were slow in coming, but there was already this baseline level of respect that I was there because I wasn't testifying or turning over this evidence. ...

You refused to be a snitch.

Right, exactly. ...

... So now that the 9th Circuit appears to have rejected your appeal --

The panel has rejected my appeal. It would then go to an en banc to decide if they want to hear the case. Hopefully they'll hear the case and rule that these protections are legitimate and that I shouldn't be forced to return to jail. ...

When you were in prison, did you have any second thoughts? ... "I want out of here. I don't know how long I'm going to be here. It could be 18 months."

Well, I knew I had to find something out by the end of the month. Due to the accelerated schedule for a recalcitrant witness who's being held in jail, the 9th Circuit has to rule within the one-month period. ... Beyond that, it was kind of like, just get the people stories that were there. We all know how when the war in Iraq broke out, we started using embedded journalists inside of these Army units. Well, the prison system is an area that journalists generally don't have much access to, so I was like, "Well, it's my first assignment." Usually I get to pick what sort of stories I cover. Well, today, I'm an embedded journalist in the federal prison system, and it's time to get to work.

So you did a lot of interviews.

Did a lot of informal interviews, some formal interviews, a lot of writing down what I would observe; some blog coverage while I was inside the system. [I] have a notebook with about 75 to 80 pages' worth of notes, in addition to all the letters that I sent out to the various people that wrote me.

You don't have the Internet, though, in prison.

No, there is no Internet in prison. But that doesn't mean you can't blog from prison, [and] I actually have started an organization which is slowly developing called prisonblogs.net. The idea is that we have the ability to write letters in prison; written text doesn't lose anything in translation when you type it up. It might take a little while, but it's totally doable. So one of the guys that I had met in jail, he was maintaining a blog through his wife, where he would write 10 to 15 messages, and she would post them once a day. I of course was planning on doing the same thing, being an active blogger already. ...

... You define yourself as a political journal, a journalist of opinion.

I define myself as a transparent journalist in that my biases are on the table. I don't make any attempts to achieve a false objectivity, because I feel that trying to do that on issues that you actually have an opinion about is actually not genuine at all. I feel that you will put yourself in a situation of either overcompensating and being an advocate against what you believe in, or you will do the opposite and suddenly force the issues in a sort of undercover advocacy role, in terms of your inflection about the protesters or something like that.

I think this happens all the time on corporate newscasts. I feel that it's more up front, it's more truthful, to put my views on the table, so that you can say, "Well, yes, this is his report, but he believes this, so we have to take that into account." I think that the viewer is sophisticated enough to see my bias and then take away my bias from my reporting and get a more truthful impression than going in thinking that everything the newscaster is saying is not motivated by advertising budgets and that sort of thing.

We interviewed Pat Buchanan, a conservative Nixon era official, who said that that's exactly his criticism of Walter Cronkite at the time; that he was a liberal, but he hid his liberalism in false objectivity.

Right. I think that that's the strongest problem with objective or nonpartisan news gathering, is that there always is a bias, whether it's the bias of your editor, your own bias, or even middle management's bias that's like, "Well, we're doing this report about United Defense, and we know that they provide a lot of advertising budget through other companies [they're] involved in, so we don't want to be critical of this organization, so, you know, you went a little too far there." There's been countless cases of situations where editors have said, "You can't go this far in this story because it would be detrimental to our advertising budget."

And if Walter Cronkite says to us that "I'm proud to be a liberal, but when I do my job, I get my opinions, to the extent that I can, out of it and present the information with both sides of the story in a balanced way," you don't believe that.

To say that he does it I think is taking it too far. To say, "I strive to be balanced, but I am liberal, and you have to realize that that is going to have some bearing, and I try to make it as little as possible; I'd like you to point out when you think that my own opinion is taking over," I think that's legitimate. But to say, "When I'm on the clock, I'm on the clock, and my politics are out the window" -- we're human beings; we can't turn off our mental capacity to feel about issues.

... I feel that [what I do is] very close to objective, but I feel that my editing decisions are colored by my politics. I think that's a fact that we all need to confront and realize, and the people that are up front about it are going to lead the way for mainstream media to go: "Disclaimer: I voted for this guy. However, this is what just happened to him."

Transparent journalism has a lot more ability to gain true trust with its viewers than those striving for objective journalism. I was watching Fox News' coverage of Israel and the Lebanon struggle while I was incarcerated, and it was very clear. They're like: "Yeah, the terrorist Hezbollah is getting trounced by Israel. Isn't this wonderful?" And I'm like, I don't care which side you're falling on; this isn't objective. There's clearly ... the good guys and the bad guys in your reportage, and you're pretending that you're fair and balanced. ...

Are you an anarchist?

I identify with nonauthoritarian politics and philosophy. ... I feel that these are contradictions which cannot be resolved in our current system.

Are you an anarchist?

I do not support authoritarian beliefs, and I'm an anti-capitalist. The term "anarchy" evokes ... the assassination of [President] Garfield by the anarchist [Charles Julius Guiteau]. ... To that end, the term itself is sort of like a poison dart. When people hear "anarchist," they don't think of the writings of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky; they think about smashing windows at Starbucks. So it's a very careful thing in that it covers a very broad philosophy -- the idea that we only follow the law because we choose to, that they can't force us to live under this legal society, that there's a contract there that we should be aware that we are making with our ruling institutions.

Right, yeah. But are you an anarchist?

It's a term that I cannot choose to identify within this context.

OK. ... On the night of the protest in question, were you there as a journalist or as a follower of the movement, where you would share these beliefs, these nonauthoritarian beliefs, with the people who were there?

My personal feelings about the G8 summit, which is why they were demonstrating, is that it should not be in existence. So to that end, the reason that they were brought together is something that I am philosophically in agreement with. However, I was there as a journalist covering why they were out there. Just because you happen to have one set of beliefs in covering a story as a journalist, that you believe one side of it, doesn't make you not a journalist. ...

The appeals court has at this point rejected your appeal.

Right. The 9th Circuit Panel has rejected my appeal.

[New York Times reporter] Judy Miller, who I know, called me and said, "This is a terrible decision," because the odds are the appellate court as a whole is going to reject it.

That is certainly a possibility.

All the precedents are running against you.

That's true.

And you face how long in jail?

At this point, about a year. A little less than a year -- maybe nine months.

If they don't extend the grand jury.

If they don't extend the grand jury, that's correct.

[Are] you going to go back and do your time?

I'm hoping that our appeals will be successful and I won't have to. The biggest issue to me is the fact that the judge is refusing to act as a filter. As I've said repeatedly, the subject of the investigation is not on the tape. If the judge were to be willing to act as a filter and establish the fact that what we've asserted in declarations is true, that we haven't perjured ourselves in the court, then they would have no evidence of a federal crime, and this would have to be thrown out. ...

But you understand that you're making a philosophical argument, but you're going to have to do the time.

I'd say it's a legal argument as well as a philosophical argument. But yes, I do understand that I am in that position. …

... Your lawyers have said that this isn't about the cop car. What do you think this whole case is about?

... My concern is that this isn't about the SFPD police car at all. I feel that it's either an attack on journalism and the rights of journalists, or it's essentially a witch hunt a la McCarthyism and the 1950s hunt for anyone who may or may not have identified as a Communist. I feel that if I were to open the floodgates by providing them a tape to prove that this subject isn't on it, that I would then be subject to questions of, "Who is this person? Who is this person? Who is this person?," and basically at that point, all those people would be subpoenaed, and it would be a never-ending witch hunt to try to make a database of people engaged in civil dissidence and people engaged in civil dissent.

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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