George Boardman: Not even progressives love an unfettered press when their ox is gored
Observations from the center stripe: Local spending edition
WHY DID the Nevada County Republican Party hold its annual dinner in Placer County? … AS SOMEBODY who attended several Pendleton Roundups when I was a kid, I can’t get used to rodeo competitors wearing crash helmets … WHEN BERNIE Sanders starts jabbing his finger in the air, he reminds me of a guy running kids off his lawn … RULE OF thumb: The longer the title, the less important the job … NOW THAT Uber and Lyft are public companies, they are under pressure to start making money. That means either higher fares, less pay for drivers, or both …
For all of his bluster about “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump has yet to send federal agents, armed with a sledgehammer and guns drawn, after a journalist who produced a story he didn’t like.
No, you would have to go to that bastion of progressivism, San Francisco, where the image and legacy of a beloved progressive trumped any of this nonsense about a free, open and unfettered press.
San Francisco police recently invaded the home of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody, battering down his front gate with a sledgehammer, entering his home with guns drawn, and handcuffing him while they spent six hours ransacking his home.
His crime? Obtaining a confidential police report about the circumstances surrounding the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi and selling it to three television stations.
Adachi, one of the few public defenders in the country elected to office, was a hero of San Francisco progressives for his aggressive defense of the poor in general and minorities in particular, and for fighting misconduct by police. He was not a favorite of the police department and the district attorney.
So when he died abruptly in February at the age of 59 and details of his death were leaked almost immediately to the media, Adachi’s supporters charged the police deliberately smeared him. Police Chief Bill Scott was under immense pressure to find the person in his department who leaked the confidential report.
Adachi collapsed at a Telegraph Hill apartment and was pronounced dead later at a hospital. The city’s medical examiner said he died from a mix of cocaine and alcohol along with heart disease. The police report documented some of the details of his final hours, including photos of an unkempt bed, marijuana edibles and liquor bottles in an apartment he was occupying with a woman who wasn’t his wife.
Police attention quickly turned to Carmody, a freelance journalist who has supported himself in that precarious manner for 29 years. Known in the trade as a “stringer,” Carmody shoots video of car wrecks, fires and other mayhem that occurs in the middle of the night, and sells his tape to local television stations.
Police zeroed in on Carmody when it became known he sold copies of the confidential police report to the TV stations. Police asked him where he got the report, but he refused to tell them. They returned later with a search warrant and their sledgehammer to seize 60 items from Carmody, including computers, phones, cameras and notebooks. (A judge subsequently ordered police to return the items.)
The raid was clearly a violation of California’s shield law that protects journalists from being compelled to identify sources, and specifically bars police from using a search warrant as a workaround. So-called confidential information is routinely leaked to the news media, and it is not a crime to publish or broadcast the material. Since the search warrant is under seal, nobody knows how the police described Carmody to the judges who approved the raid.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported it also obtained a copy of the report, but didn’t get it from Carmody and didn’t pay for it. Why didn’t the police raid the Chronicle? Because it is owned by a large corporation that can afford to hire high-powered legal talent to fight such an action. Carmody is essentially on his own.
Police defended their action as an attempt to find the person in the department who obstructed justice by improperly releasing a confidential police document. “We have to do our jobs and make sure reports are not released when they are not supposed to be released,” Scott said. “If there’s criminal activity that’s proven we want to get to the bottom of that.”
City officials demanded action after the Board of Supervisors held a hearing on the leaked report. Mayor London Breed backed the raid, pointing out rather lamely that police “went through the appropriate legal process to request a search warrant.” Scott insisted the raid didn’t violate the shield law because police believe Carmody was part of a “conspiracy” to leak the report.
Breed and Scott have gone on the defensive as criticism has mounted. District Attorney George Gascon, who was out of the country when the raid occurred and whose office wasn’t consulted when police sought their search warrant, criticized the raid as an abuse of power and an assault on press freedom.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen pointed out that San Francisco progressives love leaks from the Trump administration that embarrass the president, but that also means supporting local journalists’ rights to receive leaked information, even if it puts a beloved progressive like Adachi in a negative light.
“We cannot have it both ways,” she said. “I am shocked that the judges in this case, the police chief, the mayor, that so many levels of government aren’t decrying this abuse of power … Never in my wildest dreams did I think they would sledgehammer a journalist’s door and take all of his equipment.”
That’s the problem with a free press — everybody loves the concept until their ox is gored. If the editor of a paper reports the news without fear or favor, he or she will accumulate plenty of enemies. You don’t go to work for the local newspaper if you want to be the most popular person in town.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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