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Free Josh Wolf!

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Josh Wolf is a new federal prison inmate, and he could be locked up until next summer. His crime? Shooting video at an anti-G8 summit protest in San Francisco and refusing to turn the tape over to the cops or testify to a federal grand jury investigating a riot that developed out of the protest. Wolf was ruled in contempt by a San Francisco-based federal judge and sent prison for the duration of the grand jury term or until he changes his mind.

Here's the rub. He says he's a journalist.

California journalists enjoy the protection of a relatively strong shield law, designed to protect sources. But there is no federal shield law, and it's the Feds who are out for Josh Wolf's testimony and tape.

Josh Wolf is 24 years old. He doesn't work for the NBC News or the New York Times or any other deep-pocketed, highly recognizable corporate entity that society would automatically accept as a legitimate news-gathering organization. Katie Couric he's not. Rather, he's one of the critical foot soldiers in a vital army of news reporters out there in our midst trying to chronicle what's going on in the world and scratch out a meager living with his work. In other words, Josh Wolf is a freelance journalist.

Wolf went to the protest with his video camera. He posted some of the tape he shot on his own website and sold some of it to local broadcast television station news departments. That he was able to sell his work to TV outlets certainly ought to convince anyone that he is a bona fide journalist. But his case reminds us that in a world of expanding opportunities for recording and disseminating the news, we're still facing some serious unanswered questions, and perhaps the most important one pending is: What is a journalist?

Is a blogger a journalist? Is a part-time freelancer a journalist? Is someone who sits in a studio and reads news dispatches over the airwaves that are written by others a journalist?

I spent over twelve years working for NBC News as a news correspondent. I carried press credentials issued by the White House, the Senate and the House, NBC itself, and scores of other jurisdictions worldwide throughout my tenure at NBC. I was not only an "officially accredited journalist," but my sense of professional identity was directly tied to the corporate entity. My professional name was essentially hyphenated: Peter Laufer-NBC News.

These days I write books as a freelancer, but they are without doubt books of news reportage. For example, Wetback Nation (just now coming out in a paperback edition) deals with immigration into the U.S. from Mexico, and Mission Rejected profiles U.S. soldiers opposed to the war in Iraq. I use the same techniques, tools, and devices to report the news in these books as I used at NBC News. Because successful houses published these books, my work as a journalist is not questioned. But what if they had not found a market? What if I had chosen to self publish them? Should that have made me less protected as a journalist as I reported?

And what about blogs? Certainly at this point in its short history, it would be difficult for anyone to argue that Huffington Post is not a legitimate news-gathering organization. Its circulation is huge and its correspondents include writers from the pantheon of well-established journalists. But what about Josh Wolf? Have you ever visited his site: www.joshwolf.net? Probably not. I haven't. Does that make his work or his site intrinsically any less legitimate than HuffPost? It shouldn't. So is your barber a news reporter when he tells you the latest neighborhood gossip while he cuts your hair? If he tells that news to a dozen customers a day he may have a larger audience than some bloggers.

These are issues that must be addressed. Josh Wolf may be the first blogger imprisoned for his journalism; he undoubtedly won't be the last. If we are all potentially journalists - the NBC reporters, the bloggers, and the barbers - can there be a role for protections and privileges such as shield laws? Perhaps the First Amendment is all we ought to count on as journalists. No shield laws, no press cards, no free tickets to Disneyland from their "media services" department. If that were the case, then anyone really could be a journalist with all the rights that come with job. But if we're going to create a special class for the press, we've got a serious chore on our hands deciding who gets in the club and whom we exclude.

While we try to figure out this problem, support Josh Wolf. Write the judge who locked him up, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup in San Francisco. Contribute to the Society of Professional Journalists legal defense fund; it helps pay his legal fees. And as my friend and colleague Wes "Scoop" Nisker has been saying since our days in the radio newsroom at KSAN in San Francisco: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own."

Free Josh Wolf!