The San Francisco Chronicle brings the news today that 24-year-old Josh Wolf will remain in jail after negotiations overseen by a federal magistrate judge failed to result in a settlement that would lead to his release. Wolf has spent the past six months in federal prison for refusing a California court order that he turn over a homemade videotape of violence during a San Francisco political demonstration, making him the longest-jailed member of the media (we assert that title, though it's up for debate) in American history.
Meanwhile, WaPo's Howard Kurtz turns his spyglass on the controversial blogger, digging into the question of whether or not Wolf can be considered a "journalist" along the lines of jailed reporter Judy Miller. In Kurtz's view, facts like Wolf's lack of affiliation with a mainstream news outlet, the non-presence of confidential sources to protect and his posting of other parts of the tape on his personal blog differentiate his situation from high-profile cases like Miller's (though Kurtz notes that Miller has been an outspoken advocate for Wolf's cause).
Wolf's status as a "legitimate journalist" has become a frequent debate topic in a media atmosphere that's dubbed him everything from photographer to blogger to anarchist (or some combination therein). A strong stance on the issue will typically incite just as strong a rebuttal; in response to Kurtz, Attytood's Will Bunch slapped the hands of mainstream scribes like the WaPo columnist and San Francisco Chronicle writer Debra Saunders, who also argued that Wolf should be excluded from journalism's "legitimate" ranks. Bunch maintains that reporters should be rallying behind Wolf rather than hanging him out to dry to preserve a "threatened" "journalistic manhood," and that, in his steadfast efforts to protect the public's right to information, Wolf is as much a journalist as the Pulitzer-winning Miller.
It's important that Wolf remain a subject of discussion in the media, and his predicament has been a catalyst for valuable discussion about the merging of blogging and traditional journalism. Still, while semantics and label distinctions may be relevant on some level, they're missing the larger picture. A 24-year-old has now spent 199 days languishing in jail for highly dubious legal reasons, in a case that sets a dangerous precedent for the future of journalism. Debates over whether Wolf's blogger status renders him a card-carrying member of the press offer plenty of opportunity to argue about the tenets of the profession, but they miss the 800-pound gorilla in the room - specifically, that the next reporter/photographer/blogger/all of the above who reports a story and then finds him/herself faced with government demands for sources may be facing serious jailtime with little recourse (plus there's the ever-lingering question of why the government is so intent on seeing Wolf's tapes in the first place, as Bunch points out). Whether or not Kurtz and Saunders think Wolf merits a spot on the "official journalist" roster, a federal judge thought so, and proceeded to rule that national security concerns offer a trump card for any claim to protection of sources. No matter what we decide to call him, Wolf is headed towards more prison time with no release in sight, and his fate could just as easily be our future.