The Media Today

New details raise further questions about San Francisco journalist raid

May 29, 2019

On Friday, May 10, police officers took a sledgehammer to the front gate of Bryan Carmody, a freelance journalist and stringer in San Francisco. Once they got into his home, they cuffed him for five and a half hours and took away his phones and computers. “They searched my house at gunpoint,” Carmody told CJR afterward. “They were running around like a SWAT team.” The officers were hunting the source of a leaked police report on the death of Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s former public defender, which Carmody had obtained and sold forward to local TV stations; two judges had authorized the search. Carmody, Tony Biasotti noted for CJR, was “an imperfect free-speech martyr”; some in the Bay Area’s media scene see him as “something of a troll.” Nonetheless, the raid on his home quickly united local journalists and national press-freedom advocates in outrage.

Last Sunday, nine days after the raid, London Breed, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco, carefully distanced herself from her police department. “I have to believe that the judges’ decision was legal and warranted, and therefore so was the search,” she wrote on Twitter. “Whether or not the search was legal, warranted, and appropriate, however, is another question. And the more we learn, the less appropriate it looks to me.” The following day, George Gascón, the city’s district attorney, used similar language: “I can’t imagine a situation in which a search warrant would be appropriate” absent any evidence that Carmody broke the law in obtaining the report, he said. The day after that, Bill Scott, San Francisco’s police chief, said Carmody was suspected of criminal conspiracy. According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Evan Sernoffsky, however, Scott only said Carmody had “participated in receiving and distributing a leaked government report—an action that is common in the media and protected by the First Amendment”; Scott, at the same news conference, stressed he was explaining, not defending, his department’s actions. As the week wore on, pressure continued to mount. Kamala Harris, California senator and Democratic presidential candidate, and Gavin Newsom, the state’s governor, both criticized the raid. On Friday, Scott finally apologized. In an interview with the Chronicle, he conceded that the raid on Carmody had probably been illegal.

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A belated mea culpa is better than no mea culpa. But it shouldn’t be the end of this disturbing episode. Yesterday, Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and a frequent contributor to CJR, listed nine questions about the raid that officials have yet to answer. Were the judges who authorized the Carmody warrant aware that he is a journalist, affording him various protections under state law? If the judges did not know, did officials in the police department work to conceal that information? If they did know, why did they sign off at all? The raid, Timm writes, was a “blatant violation” of California’s shield law, which holds that journalists cannot be compelled to turn over unpublished information or identity their sources. According to Timm, the FBI also attempted to interview Carmody after the raid. But the extent of the bureau’s involvement has yet to be explained.

Also yesterday, new reporting from Sernoffsky, at the Chronicle, added further grounds for concern. The police, Scott admitted, didn’t just raid Carmody’s home but also obtained search warrants targeting his phone records—a step his attorneys said was previously unknown to them—as well as officers within the department. Details of the warrant for Carmody’s phone records are scarce (it was filed under seal). As Sernoffsky notes, however, it “raises questions about whether Carmody’s phone records provided evidence that police used to justify the later warrants, and about whether police had identified suspects in the leak case.”

City authorities should urgently answer these questions, and national media should continue to push them to do so. It’s bad enough that this case poses a local threat to free journalistic practice—its chilling effect is clear, both for journalists and potential sources in San Francisco—but its relevance doesn’t stop at San Francisco’s city limits. Whether or not it was a factor in this case, officials across the country will take national attacks on the media as license to treat reporters with contempt. As Audrey Cooper, editor of the Chronicle, tweeted last week, “Press freedoms can be threatened in any city, regardless of how conservative or liberal it is.”

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Below, more on the Carmody raid:

  • “Echoes of autocracy”: Last week, Yashar Ali argued, in an op-ed for CNN, that the raid has attracted insufficient national concern. “This story has received national press attention but not enough public outrage. It is essentially seen as a local story about a local politician,” Ali wrote. “Reporters in the United States are more and more the targets of local and state law enforcement.”
  • “Going after journalists”: Despite California’s strong legal protections, efforts to strongarm members of the press are nothing new in the state. According to Vice’s David Uberti, at least four other journalists have faced search warrants in the past 10 years. And earlier this year, Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, demanded that journalists at UC Berkeley destroy documents they had obtained under freedom of information laws, as Biasotti reported for CJR.
  • The fight continues: Last week, police officials promised, during court proceedings, to return devices they confiscated from Carmody. It wasn’t clear, however, what they planned to do with information they may have obtained from them. Carmody’s lawyers, meanwhile, want a judge to go further and quash the original search warrants. A hearing is set for June 10.

Other notable stories:

  • Last year, Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s explosive behind-the-scenes account of the Trump White House, became a bestseller but also courted controversy—many journalists do not believe Wolff to be a reliable narrator. Wolff’s follow-up book, Siege, isn’t out yet but already is making waves: yesterday, The Guardian reported Wolff’s claim, based on documents he says were leaked to him, that Robert Mueller drew up a three-count indictment of Trump on obstruction grounds but decided to shelve it. Peter Carr, Mueller’s spokesperson, denied that such documents exist. For the Times, meanwhile, Jennifer Szalai assesses Wolff’s reliance on Steve Bannon as a source. “It makes more sense to read Siege less as a news report and more as a rhetorical gambit—a twisted bid to burnish Bannon’s anti-establishment legacy,” Szalai writes.
  • Last week, the Times caught flak for an article, by Maggie Haberman, about Hope Hicks, Trump’s former aide. Next to a glamorous headshot, the paper said Hicks faces an “existential question” as to whether to comply with a Congressional subpoena; online, many critics argued that compliance with federal law should not have been framed as a choice. The Daily Beast reported yesterday that the Times is standing by the story, though it did concede that the photo choice was “not ideal.” (The word “existential” was changed online.) New York’s Jonathan Chait also came to Haberman’s defense. “The piece was not the best specimen of Haberman’s work, but the response to it did illustrate the extraordinary and almost pathological hatred her name provokes,” Chait argued.
  • The Pulitzer Prizes were handed out at Columbia University yesterday. Guests included Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the Reuters reporters recently released from jail in Myanmar, and Jennifer Hudson, who sang in tribute to Aretha Franklin. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo may not possess Hudson’s celebrity, though in that rotunda, they were greeted with a reception nearly equal to hers,” CJR’s Betsy Morais writes. “When it was their turn to be invited onstage, they were given an opportunity to speak—an honor not granted to any of the other award winners—and used their platform to express thanks.”
  • After having their accounts blocked on major social networks, pro-Trump right-wingers including Laura Loomer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes decamped to Parler, a platform similar to Twitter that started last year. According to Politico’s Ben Schreckinger, Trump could be about to sign up, too. Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, is currently “scouting” Parler. Mike Lee, the Republican senator for Utah, also set up an account.
  • Slate’s Aaron Mak charts the battle over Trump’s Wikipedia page, where “editors are fighting a brutal, petty battle over every word.” Users can easily edit most entries on Wikipedia, but Trump’s page—by far the most visited about an individual person—is overseen by a hierarchy of “editors,” “administrators,” and “arbitrators.” Sometimes, they spar for days over whether a given story is significant enough to justify an update.
  • For years, The Campanile, a student newspaper at Palo Alto High School, has published a searchable map showing where graduating seniors are going to college. This year—influenced, in part, by the recent college admissions scandal—the paper’s leaders decided to buck the tradition: “We’ve created a culture of achievement,” they wrote, “but sometimes, the superficial glory of goal-oriented accomplishment isn’t enough to make someone happy on its own.” Palo Alto Weekly’s Elena Kadvany has more details.
  • CJR’s Justin Ray profiles Valeria Sistrunk, a former reporter who created a RateMyProfessor-style website allowing journalists to leave anonymous reviews of the TV stations where they work. “Some are more thorough than others and many newsrooms only have one review,” Ray writes. “Still, reviewers generally give meaningful feedback for those making career decisions.”
  • And Tony Horwitz, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and historian who wrote for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, died yesterday, at the age of 60. “He was the rare historian—the only historian I can think of—equally at home in the archive and in an interview, a dedicated scholar, a devoted journalist,” The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore writes.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.