Magazine article American Journalism Review

Lone Wolf: Blogger and Anarchist Josh Wolf Isn't a Traditional Reporter, but He's Been in Jail on Contempt of Court Charges Longer Than Any U.S. Journalist in Memory

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Lone Wolf: Blogger and Anarchist Josh Wolf Isn't a Traditional Reporter, but He's Been in Jail on Contempt of Court Charges Longer Than Any U.S. Journalist in Memory

Article excerpt

Liz Wolf-Spada, the mother of blogger, freelance videographer, anarchist and activist Josh Wolf, has spent her son's long months in federal prison getting a crash course on the grand jury process and the need for a federal shield law to protect journalists. She's also been busy worrying.

"I'm very proud of Josh," Wolf-Spada says over lunch in Oakland, California, in late January after her monthly trip to the penitentiary. "But sometimes I wish I could be proud of someone else's son."

Wolf, 24, has been in the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, since September for defying a grand jury subpoena for video footage he recorded of an anarchist demonstration in San Francisco. He's been incarcerated on contempt of court charges longer than any U.S. journalist in modern history: On February 6, he eclipsed the 168-day record previously held by true-crime author Vanessa Leggett (see "The Vanessa Leggett Saga," March 2002).

At a time when a parade of prominent reporters divulged confidential conversations with sources at the trial of the vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Wolf's largely overlooked case has raised fascinating questions, chief among them whether he is "really" a journalist and who decides. But in an age when the distinction between objectivity and advocacy is increasingly blurred, and scores of citizens are generating content for mainstream media outlets, the definition of a journalist has become murkier, as have the legal and ethical obligations of both mainstream reporters and those working on journalism's fringes.

Wolf grew up in rural Wrightwood, California, in the San Bernardino Mountains north of Los Angeles. An only child, he was raised by his mom; his parents divorced when he was 3. At Serrano High School in nearby Phelan, he excelled in English, was active in the drama and music programs, and took journalism classes. "Our school district is very conservative, and Josh was always somebody who stood up for unique beliefs," says Serrano High English teacher Jill Henry. Wolf attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, but felt lured to the progressive politics of the San Francisco Bay Area. He transferred to San Francisco State in 2002, graduating from the psychology department in May 2006.

His mom is an elementary school teacher with cropped gray hair who speaks in the earnest, optimistic tones of someone who spends a lot of time with young children. She says her son always fought for what he believed in--including protesting a high school policy forbidding the students from wearing all black. "At the time he was really into punk and dying his hair different colors," she recalls.

It's easy to see how Wolf inherited a passion for leftist politics. Wolf-Spada, 58, is active in her local teachers union, idolizes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and spent months at a Zen retreat on the California coast to meditate against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Wolf is her maiden name. She never changed it and bequeathed it to her son. His middle name is Selassie, as in Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

The two are extremely close. Once a month, Wolf-Spada gets up at her home in Wrightwood before dawn, heads to the airport, flies to Oakland, rents a car and drives to the prison to visit for as long as officials allow. Throughout her son's incarceration, Wolf-Spada has been his lead spokesperson. In January, she attended the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis to spread the word about his plight. She talks to his friends. She takes orders for "Free Josh" T-shirts. She lobbied for a federal shield law on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., and regularly posts updates about his case on

"When Judy Miller went to jail, it was all over the papers all the time," she says of the former New York Times reporter who spent 85 days behind bars before reaching an agreement with Libby to testify about their conversations. …

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