Yesterday, Bryan Carmody, the freelance reporter whose home was raided by the San Francisco police earlier this month, was allowed to reclaim the files and equipment they’d seized from him. The raid, carried out in the name of a leak investigation, seemed to have been a clear violation of California’s shield law for journalists, which is supposed to forbid the use of search warrants to obtain any kind of reporting materials
The writeup in the New York Times explained that the Times has joined in an amicus brief on Carmody’s behalf, and it quoted Audrey Cooper, the editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, saying that Carmody was more vulnerable to police interference than reporters from bigger news organizations. But then the Times went on to add this:
Mr. Carmody’s brand of journalism differs from the kind practiced by deskbound staff members. He is what some in the business call a stringer or, more colorfully, a “night crawler.” That means he jumps on breaking news, frequently in the wee hours. He typically sells his reports to local TV stations and often does not receive on-air credit for his work….
In an opinion article last week, Ms. Cooper, the Chronicle editor, defended Mr. Carmody while acknowledging that he was a “less-than-ideal” martyr for the cause of press freedom at a time when it is under broad attack.
His chosen line of work, which he has practiced for nearly 30 years, may make him someone who does not quite fit the public’s definition of a journalist — but his supporters say he deserves the same protections as any reporter with benefits from a known institution.
Everyone behind that passage probably thought they meant well, but they were making a serious and dangerous mistake. The Columbia Journalism Review did the same thing, after recounting how Carmody had a history of nastiness toward other journalists and contempt for people who criticized the cops, describing him as an “imperfect free-speech martyr.”
I have bitter firsthand experience with these sorts of caveated, halfhearted defenses of press freedom. The message is that there must exist some ideal or perfect journalists, who practice their trade in a way that no one could find objectionable, and who have to nobly bear the burden of standing up for bad journalists.
This is tactically stupid, when law enforcement comes after the press. It grants the possibility that there are identifiably better or worse classes of journalism, and by extension that a constitutionally protected activity depends in some way on the public reputation of the people who do it. If journalism is a profession, with graduated levels of professionalism, then why shouldn’t there be graduated levels of protection to go with it?
But Carmody is a journalist. It made no sense for the New York Times to bring up whatever it believes “the public’s definition of a journalist” may be. The police raided his home because he had gathered information for the purpose of sharing it with the public, and they were trying, in response to political pressure, to criminalize that work.
What more would it take to make him an acceptable martyr? Important First Amendment cases tend not to involve people who are in the good graces of the public. They happen when powerful people and governments think they can win a fight, because the person or publication they’re attacking has published something offensive—offensive to national security, or to law and order, or to good taste, or to manners.
Carmody’s reporting was part of a nasty story, in which the police apparently leaked humiliating details about the death of the city public defender, whom they had despised. Local politicians, liberals in good standing, chose to be angry about the leak rather than concerned about the freedom of the press, or about the law.
Among the people who consider themselves respectable journalists, there’s an innocent and ridiculous belief that the First Amendment is a certificate of popular support for what they do, rather than a warning sign that their work needs protection. If they ever got in trouble, people would understand and take their side. But anyone can get in trouble, sooner or later, whether for getting something wrong or for getting something right. If people loved a free press, rather than just the idea of a free press, we wouldn’t need shield laws or the First Amendment at all.