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Out at First: What the Carmody Case Tells Us About Press Freedoms

June 20, 2019
by Glen Martin

It was more Keystone Cops than Law and Order. On May 10, wielding a sledgehammer and drawn guns, San Francisco police raided the apartment of Bryan Carmody, a freelance videographer who had leaked a police report on the death of popular and progressive public defender Jeff Adachi. The confidential account contained salacious hints of drug use and extramarital sex.

“There’s a message implicit in the denouement of this affair, and it’s this—messing with the press carries risk.”

At first, bolstered by support from city officials—including Mayor London Breed—Police Chief Bill Scott claimed Carmody participated in a conspiracy to steal the confidential report. But then journalists and civil libertarians retaliated. Decrying Scott’s accusation as a violation of the First Amendment and California’s Shield Law, they noted that obtaining and releasing confidential material is a pro forma procedure for a free press. Alarmed, San Francisco pols quickly withdrew their earlier support and Scott apologized for the raid, admitting that that investigators showed a “lack of due diligence.”

That, in turn, brought down the wrath of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. Citing Scott’s deep involvement with the investigation, representatives demanded his resignation saying he “…has clearly either come down with the most debilitating case of amnesia or is flat out not telling the truth about his direct involvement and the horribly flawed direction he gave to find the leak of the police report…”

Ouch! Breed ordered an independent inquiry into the matter, and police officials subsequently acknowledged that seven additional warrants had been issued during the Carmody investigation, at least one of which was “probably” illegal.

And there it stands.

It might seem that the only victor in the imbroglio is Carmody, whose profile as a freelancer has been heightened and who could ultimately stand to receive significant damages from the city in any future lawsuits. But there’s a bigger winner, says Edward Wasserman, the Dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism: the American press.

“There’s a message implicit in the denouement of this affair,” says Wasserman, “and it’s this—messing with the press carries risk.”

The entire process of news gathering and dissemination is endangered, says Wasserman. And the most imperiled links in that chain are sources.

When news of the raid first broke, says Wasserman, he was concerned that local police departments were intuiting a public tolerance for media suppression following signals from the highest levels of government—the Trump administration. The fact that the raid was conducted on a freelance journalist who had no institutional connections was both telling and ominous, Wasserman says. Concepts of journalism—and journalists—are shifting with the folding of many legacy media outlets, and reporting that was once carried out by credentialed staffers increasingly falls to freelancers and stringers. That may be emboldening efforts to restrict coverage with the justification that such entrepreneurial information brokers aren’t “real” reporters, says Wasserman.

“But journalism is really more of a process than a profession,” he says, “it includes people who report, whether or not they’re on staff. It also includes sources. So, First Amendment protections apply to the entire process, not just a specific staffer from an established media outlet.”

Wasserman recently expanded on that point in a New York Times op-ed on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom, he notes, is so widely pilloried that even some journalists feel he doesn’t warrant free speech protections.

“…It’s true that he’s plainly not a reporter, since he conveys information unearthed by others, and not a publisher either, since he often works through other news outlets to reach the public,” Wasserman writes, “So he isn’t really one of us. Worse, he’s a rogue. He even helped the Russians defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

Wasserman observes that The Washington Post has been particularly critical of Assange, the paper’s editorialists declaring “he’s not ‘a free-press hero,’” and cites “the headline on an article by The Post’s foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, [that] asks whether he’s anything more than ‘an accused thief.’” As for Wasserman? He writes, “My answer is he’s a lot more.”

“Journalism is really more of a process than a profession. It includes people who report, whether or not they’re on staff.”

Wasserman argues that the entire process of news gathering and dissemination is endangered, and that the most imperiled links in that chain are sources—even reviled sources such as Assange.

“WikiLeaks enabled spectacular disclosures of official secrets — from war crimes, torture and atrocities on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan to corruption in Kenya and Tunisia, the latter a catalyst of the Arab Spring.” He continues, “[Assange’s] jailing is the latest event in the ferocious reprisal against a decade of digital whistle-blowing — which has never, to my knowledge, yielded information that was inaccurate or unimportant — and that has now produced little but misery, banishment or imprisonment for the people who tried to force officialdom to come clean.”

As for the Carmody case, Wasserman says he found the public reaction and the subsequent embarrassment to police and the city officials who egged them on both appropriate and gratifying.

“They quickly discovered that, no, you can’t do this,” Wasserman says. “They were tagged out at first base and sent back to the dugout.”

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