A Blogger Keeps His Video and Lands in Jail
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Last summer a protest in San Francisco got out of hand. A police officer was injured and a police car caught fire. Now a blogger is in jail for not helping a federal grand jury trying to find out who is to blame. Federal prosecutors wanted to see the video of the melee made by Josh Wolf, a freelance journalist and blogger who sold some of his footage to local television stations. But Wolf refused to turn over his tape, claiming his rights were protected as a journalist. Now he's in jail.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, joins us in the studio now to talk about this case. We should say welcome back, Jeffrey. Your last job was as ombudsman here at NPR.
Mr. JEFFREY DVORKIN (Committee of Concerned Journalists): Right. Nice to be here, again.
ELLIOTT: Mr. Wolf claims that by turning over his tape, that would somehow turn him into, quote, a surveillance camera for the government. Is this a legitimate reason for a journalist to withhold information?
Mr. DVORKIN: Well, it has been for quite a while. I think that going back to the demonstrations in the '60s and '70s, there were a lot of instances where journalists were forced or asked to turn over their - what are called their outtakes. Those are the parts of the video, or the film in those days, that weren't shown, and frequently news organizations went to fight for their journalists to say that keeping their outtakes was a privilege that the journalists had to keep in order for them to stop from being perceived as police agents.
If everything that was shot by a news photographer ended up in police hands, then the idea of what is the role of a journalist in a cause like a demonstration then becomes suspect, and it makes the job of journalism that much more difficult.
ELLIOTT: Are there any circumstances you can imagine where a journalist would be obligated to work with authorities?
Mr. DVORKIN: Oh, I think so. I there are often instances where a journalist is aware of an event where a crime may be committed, and I think that there will be always circumstances where a journalist's obligations as a citizen trumps his or her obligations as a journalist. But in this instance I think that Josh Wolf is entirely correct in saying that he is not a police agent and that he has an obligation to make sure that the job of journalism is clear in the mind of the public. We're not here to act as agents of the police.
ELLIOTT: Now, Mr. Wolfe considers himself a journalist. His tape was picked up by the local media. He's a blogger. In the world today, I guess the definition of journalist is getting broader?
Mr. DVORKIN: It's getting more wooly and more muddied because technology is allowing people to operate in the way that journalists used to operate in the past. Most journalists define themselves as journalists because they work for a journalistic organization. Now you have technology which allows individual citizens to act in a journalistic manner. And the question is, and it's a good question, what defines a journalist?
ELLIOTT: And I guess you don't have the answer to that.
Mr. DVORKIN: Well, I think the answer is, we should go back and look at the way journalism has evolved over more than two hundred years of the American Republic. Pamphleteers began during the American Revolution and they had a tremendous role to play in informing the people. I think bloggers now operate in the same way as pamphleteers did more than 200 years ago, and I think we have to talk about, with the public and amongst ourselves, what is the definition of a journalist and how does technology change what that definition is?
ELLIOTT: Do journalists see this case in California as a threat?
Mr. DVORKIN: Well, I think journalists around the country see this as a threat. Journalists are going to jail. Increasingly, the courts and the police are seeing journalists not as having a special role to play in the society. They're seeing them as someone who can be pushed and influenced to support what the state is doing.
ELLIOTT: Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Thanks so much.
Mr. DVORKIN: My pleasure. Thank you
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