Thursday, March 08, 2007

Journalists are not G-Men

Kudos to Howard Kurtz for airing the question of whether jailed videographer Josh Wolf is a journalist in his Washington Post piece today, Jailed Man Is A Videographer And a Blogger but Is He a Journalist? It is a question too many too quickly skate over. But Kurtz quickly shifts his focus to a very different question -- that of Wolf's rationale for withholding the video. In so doing, he wrongly shifts the burden from the persecutor to the persecuted.

Journalists are not agents of the government. Reporters, photographers and videographers should not be required to operate under the assumption that they are collecting evidence for later use by law enforcement. They should be free to choose the quotes or images they use in their reporting and to keep their notes or outtakes to themselves.

The government has offered no good reason for why it should view Wolf's tapes -- or even for why it wants to. The burden should not be on Wolf to justify his nondisclosure. The burden should be on the government to justify what right it has to demand access to his footage. It is not for Wolf to say why he does not want to surrender the tapes, it is for the government to explain why he should. Do we want a nation in which the government claims right to demand access to anyone's pictures and video?

None of which, it strikes me, has any bearing on the question of whether Wolf is a journalist. Wolf's lawyer, Martin Garbus, says it well in Kurtz's piece: "I would define a journalist as someone who brings news to the public." Enough said. Wolf fits the bill.

There is an implication in the article that perhaps Wolf does not "qualify" as a journalist because he is, by his own description, an activist. That, of course, would mean that Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison and Isaiah Thomas were not journalists.

Kurtz is right that this is not a confidential-source case. But there is a principle at stake, and it involves the right of journalists to operate as watchdogs of government, not its agents.