Knew Media
Josh Wolf[1]

After spending two hundred twenty-six days at the Federal Detention Center in Dublin, California, for refusing to comply with a subpoena for the grand jury that demanded me to testify and turn over unpublished materials, I was thrust into the position of having to explain not only why I was a journalist, but also prodded into exploring what I, as a journalist, would or would not do in any number of hypothetical situations. Few of those questions had easy answers, and while many journalists agreed with my responses to the hypotheticals, others found them reprehensible and accused me of damaging the public's perception of the news media. As a result of my experiences, over the past year I have a unique perspective on the media landscape and have grown to see a vital role for both the establishment and alternative media within the marketplace of ideas.

In July of 2005, I was visited by the San Francisco Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigations as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. I was asked about an anti-G8 protest that I had filmed in the Mission District of San Francisco a few days earlier. While I didn't have any information pertaining to the crimes they were investigating, their involvement left me feeling less than comfortable, and I didn't feel that I should have to blindly turn over my complete footage in order to prove to them I didn't have anything incriminating. They eventually left without the video in hand, and I thought that'd be the end of the story. Six months later, the same two agents returned with a subpoena for the federal grand jury demanding not only my unpublished footage but my testimony as well. The next six months were spent trying to fight it, and it was during this time that we offered to screen the footage before the judge to illustrate that I did not have any material directly relevant to the federal investigation. Under the US Attorney's objections, the judge refused. On August 1, 2006, I found myself imprisoned for refusing to turn over my materials and testify before the jury. I was granted bail by the Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals on September 1, but returned to prison on the September 22, after my appeal was denied. I was not released until April 3, 2007.

While the government did not dispute my role as a news-gatherer during the early phase of my court battle, the question of who is and is not a journalist quickly ignited through various media reports, and the US Attorney followed suit after I had been incarcerated. Prior to my jailing, the government's position was that whether or not I am a journalist is irrelevant as there is no federal shield law and no privilege exists to avoid testifying before a federal grand jury. Later on, as my time in jail began to be measured in months, the US Attorney's statements took on a more vociferous tone, arguing that I suffer from delusions of journalism and that continued incarceration would lead to this realization. Needless to say, what I learned is that the Justice Department is anything but.

We are a long way from reaching a consensus on who should be defined as a journalist, but I think we are beginning to come to terms with the fact that it isn't dependent on who signs your pay check. Not long ago Senator Lugar[2] introduced the Free Flow of Information Act of 2006 which would only provide protections for those who earned their livelihood as journalists. Last month a new Federal Shield Law was introduced that protects anyone engaged in journalism, not just those who earn their living from the craft. Had thisyear's Free Flow of Information Act been on the books it's highly unlikely I would've spent a single day in jail.

It's true that my ordeal did garner a lot of criticism from the traditional media, but it generated a great deal of support as well. The San Francisco Chronicle came out against my jailing almost immediately, and I have been recognized by several journalist organizations for the stance that I took. So why the disjunct? Why is it that some feel that I have done a great service standing up for a free press and others feel that I've left a great stain on the profession?

I'm not entirely certain what the answer is, but I think it comes down to objectivity. Well, not really objectivity so much as the perception of objectivity. While true objectivity is likely an unattainable ideal, it is possible to convince your audience that your coverage is 'Fair and Balanced.' Just ask anyone who regularly tunes into Fox News. I have never presented myself as unbiased; I feel that we all have inherent biases and that the most honest approach is to disclose our own personal ideologies as opposed to hiding behind a subterfuge of false objectivity. Not surprisingly, this philosophy is not without its detractors and the very notion that journalists across the spectrum should receive equal treatment is tantamount to heresy for some of the people I've encountered.

Recently, another filmmaker has been placed in the federal government's cross hairs. As I'm sure you all have heard by now, Michael Moore is under investigation by the Treasury Department for a trip he took to Cuba while filming his latest film Sicko. It's still uncertain what will happen to Michael Moore and the 9/11 rescue workers who travelled to Cuba, but it is already evident what effect this investigation will have on the people in this country. These attacks on information have a chilling effect on both the subjects involved and those that are covering them. The purpose of these sorts of governmental investigations is not to achieve justice; and not even to punish those whose actions have been deemed suspect. The purpose is to instill fear into anyone who dares to cover sensitive topics or chooses to express controversial political views.

It wasn't threats of jail time that led the mainstream media to seek out safer, friendlier material. The driving force behind a corporate entity is the bottom line, and unearthing corporate scandals about your advertisers or their affiliates just isn't good for the bottom line. Obviously some stories do still get through, but it is easy to see why it is not in the corporate media's self interest to spend money on stories that will hurt their profitability.

One of the ironic strengths of independent media is that they rarely can sustain their creators' economic needs. While this means that independent journalists have far less time to dedicate to journalistic pursuits as a sole means of employment, it also means that they have more liberty and freedom to explore with far less financial risk than those working within the corporate structure. At the same time, they have far less resources than most commercial ventures and are limited in the ways they can research their subject matter.

Without well-funded mainstream media there are many important stories that would never get the attention they deserve (just as there are many stories that are given the attention they do not deserve), and without independent media and alternative sources for information, a whole realm of vital situations would get no coverage at all. And though many in independent media would disagree with me, I feel that both the commercial and independent media play an important role in our society. The core problem is the lack of media literacy in the United States. The problem is that there are actually people who think that because Bill O'Reilly says his show is the No Spin Zone that his program is actually free from bias.

If media literacy were taught as part of the curriculum than the potential abuses of any form of media whether corporate or alternative would be mitigated. Once people begin to take into account the various motivations driving one's coverage, then they will be better adept at choosing what to focus on and what to dismiss and hopefully become a more informed populous. Of course, if the government continues its assault on those who focus on covering matters unpopular to the administration, then that dissenting voice may be lost from the marketplace of ideas. This is a great concern of mine having personally dealt with being incarcerated. The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 will be a step in the right direction if it passes, but it is necessary for all journalists from both the alternative and commercial media to work together to ensure press freedoms in this country and throughout the world.

[1] See also
[2] Richard G. Lugar, United States Senator for Indiana