San Francisco’s crackdown on a journalist in an effort to uncover his source is our international shame.
From the Guardian UK to the New York Times, from LA Times to NBC News, the world has now seen that the bastion of freedom in the United States, that wonderful, weird place we call home, San Francisco, behaves no differently than President Donald Trump when it comes to press freedom.
Trump simply barred press from the White House. San Francisco police, not to be … trumped … took a sledgehammer to a journalist’s door.
But hey, embarrassing ourselves on an international stage wasn’t enough for The City That Doesn’t Know How. No, no, in the face of this brazen attack on a free press, our officials decided they had to double down.
Like a perverse Doublemint gum ad, we doubled our shame to double our fun.
Both Mayor London Breed and SFPD Chief Bill Scott have since publicly shown tacit approval of the raid. Their first chance to defend the constitution, to defend the First Amendment, to defend our status as a bastion of progressivism, and they fell flat on their faces.
Now as I levy these critiques, let me be clear: I am not speaking on behalf of the San Francisco Examiner. And although I am vice president of the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California chapter — which has played a lead role in advocating for Carmody, and filing legal missives on his behalf — I am writing this purely in my capacity as a columnist.
Let’s rewind for a moment, shall we?
Bryan Carmody, a stringer for various television news agencies for more than three decades, is, as the Columbia Journalism Review noted, an “imperfect martyr.” He’s known in the local journalism world to be politically right wing and sometimes aggressive, to say the least, toward his peers who he perceives as more progressive.
And his style of newsgathering in the dead of night, capturing shadowy crimes and devastating fires and delivering that raw footage and accompanying information to TV stations, has been characterized as the job of a “Nightcrawler.”
It’s not a flattering portrait. And neither was the coverage of Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s death flattering. In my own column just after his death, I lambasted TV stations for their ham-fisted, sleazy, over-the-top handling of the story.
But let’s be clear. Carmody obtained the police report as any journalist would — through a source. He paid for nothing.
Was he paid for his own work? Yes. Of course. But even I’ve done the job of a stringer, for Agence France -Presse, and gathered interviews I delivered, raw, to be assembled by someone else. A stringer is simply another job in the cornucopia of journalism. And Carmody did the same.
Importantly, his protection under the California Shield Law is not dependent on whether or not he is granted the status of a journalist by some authority, but, rather, that he is engaged in the act of newsgathering. Enshrined in our great Golden State’s constitution, that law is supposed to bar police from banging down journalist’s doors to obtain their sources.
It explicitly protects them from search warrants so journalists can adequately serve the public interest.
All of which brings us back to Breed and Scott.
Mayor Breed’s first statement following the incident gave tacit approval for the San Francisco Police Department’s May 10 raid.
“As part of the investigation, the [police] department went through the appropriate legal process to request a search warrant, which was approved by two judges,” she wrote publicly.
Appropriate. Legal. Process.
This, from the same mayor who lambasts Trump repeatedly (and rightfully) as “bigoted and hateful,” and describing San Francisco as a home of resistance to his policies.
Well, sorry Mayor, but when our own police took a page out of Trump’s book, you blinked.
And when pressed, hard, by San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki at a Wednesday commission meeting, SFPD Chief Bill Scott ducked, dodged and weaved like the most skittish of pugilists.
“A free society depends on a free press,” Hamasaki told Scott. “When the homes of journalists are raided it doesn’t matter how we feel about the underlying case, we should all be concerned.”
Hamasaki then noted that the California Shield Law is in place to “protect journalists from searches like those that happened here.”
“Can you say whether a subpoena was considered in lieu” of the search? he asked.
“Commissioner, we went through a process, an appropriate legal process,” Scott answered, after some waffling.
Appropriate. Legal. Process.
He also said the department would not release the affidavit for the warrant (or at least reveal what was in it). He needs to tell the public if police informed the two judges who signed those warrants that Carmody was a journalist.
That’s key. Did police knowingly tear down the door of a journalist? Did they consider a stringer not to be press? Supervisor Sandra Fewer indicated earlier that they knew he was connected to media (and also bungled the matter of press freedom, herself).
Scott may be concerned revealing what’s in the affidavit would expose their case against the leaker, or expose their investigation into a criminal act. But that’s absurd — they could simply redact the relevant sections. Or he could simply say what is in it, you know, verbally?
He should do so. Immediately.
As someone who sincerely sees journalism as a way to defend the morality and spirit of our home, this beautiful seven-by-seven slice of heaven by the Bay, let me say: hate the Adachi coverage all you want, and I certainly did, but this fight isn’t just an attack on Carmody.
No, actually, it’s an attack on all of us. All media outlets depend on the sanctity of our sources, the protection from government intrusion, to do our jobs.
Think of any story in the Bay Area you’ve read lately — even my own — that exposed sexual harassment in local government. Those often depend on confidential sources who leak documents it was illegal for them to possess or share.
Remember Celeste Guap? The young woman, a minor, who was a sex worker and whom Bay Area police officers had sex with repeatedly, potentially criminally? Yeah, that depended on a leaker, too.
Many, many, many important stories were made possible by the same process Carmody used.
If his rights are trampled, if they are allowed to be trampled, with no recourse, with no rebuke, with our officials standing idly by — other critical stories may be impossible to report in the future.
Perhaps that’s what they want. Are you going to stand idly by too?
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.