Wolf Goes Free, But Debate He Inspired Continues

He has been called a blogger, freelance journalist, photographer, political activist and anarchist, but one title Josh Wolf no longer goes by is prisoner.

He has been called a blogger, freelance journalist, photographer, political activist and anarchist, but one title Josh Wolf no longer goes by is prisoner.

Wolf, 24, was released from federal prison yesterday after spending seven and a half months behind bars for refusing to turn over to a grand jury the outtakes of a video he shot of a July 2005 protest in San Francisco in which a police officer suffered a fractured skull.

In return for posting the uncut video on his Web site, giving prosecutors a copy and denying under oath that he knew anything about violent incidents at the protest, Wolf was given his freedom and prosecutors agreed not to summon him before the grand jury or ask him to identify any of the protesters shown on his video.

Wolf posted the video on his blog yesterday, along with a message. “During the course of this saga I have repeatedly offered to allow a judge to be the arbiter over whether or not my video material has any evidentiary value,” Wolf wrote. “Today, you the public have the opportunity to be the judge and I am confident you will see, as I do, that there is nothing of value in this unpublished footage.”

Organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists hailed Wolf’s release. On Huffington Post’s Eat the Press, Rachel Sklar called Wolf’s release “great news for anyone who cares about journalistic freedom.”

But it’s debatable whether Wolf is actually a journalist. Many, including Wolf, have a difficult time defining the term.

When the Hot Zone’s Kevin Sites asked Wolf, who was still in prison at the time, to choose sides between activism and journalism, Wolf said, “I see that advocacy has a firm role within the realm of journalism.”

But when Sites charged that Wolf’s version of truth was through “a prism of [his] own political convictions,” Wolf shot down the notion of complete journalistic objectivity. “The truth is biased by everyone’s convictions, whether it’s a corporate conviction of your employer, your own personal convictions that are left politically based from [a] mainstream press perspective, or a more biased perspective [because of] which you won’t be as open about as a journalist who does not put forward an impression that they are trying to be objective,” he said.

A post on the blog Newscoma questioned whether Wolf should be considered a citizen journalist. “In pondering the new digital media, where citizen journalists are being asked to shoot video or help break stories, there is more to this story than meets the eye,” the blogger wrote. “Wolf’s situation sparked a great debate over the First Amendment.”

Over at Media Nation, Dan Kennedy called Wolf’s release “costly,” but important. “With his partial victory yesterday, Wolf did not succeed in changing the law. But he showed that a journalist — even an independent blogger whose journalistic credentials are not clearly established — can generate enough publicity that the authorities will eventually back down.”

But some don’t see Wolf as a journalistic hero. “His supporters call this a victory for Mr. Wolf because he did not testify in open court or name anyone on the film,” wrote Craig on Bring it On! “Whatever. What matters is that the evidence has been turned over and he has answered questions put to him regarding the evidence.”

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Christina Hernandez is a CJR intern.