If you follow the latest cache of diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks and reported by the Guardian, The New York Times and others it is impossible not to conclude that this is a pivotal moment for journalism, its teaching and its practice. In a masterly piece on The Guardian’s website, John Naughton writes that :
The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.
I would urge anyone interested in the case as it unfolds to follow John’s excellent Memex1.1 blog where he both aggregates and writes some of the most thoughtful pieces about the ongoing saga.
The idea that this is the first real battleground between the political establishment and the open web is very arresting. It also forces journalists and news organisations to demonstrate to what extent they are now part of an establishment it is their duty to report. Some like the Guardian, which has a long tradition of free speech attached to it, has been at the heart of disseminating Wikileaks cablegate information.
Last summer when the Iraq warlogs were made public the Columbia Journalism Review published an account of the nuts and bolts of the collaboration between mainstream media and Wikileaks. which illustrates the type of collaborative bargaining and process behind the publishing efforts. But not all news organisations have been so keen to spread the hundreds of thousands of words.
The Wall Street Journal for instance has struggled to place the news from the leaked cables at all prominently in its news agenda, despite having a readership which is no doubt ferociously interesting in international relations. The Journal has carried much anti-Wikileaks and anti-Julian Assange sentiment on its op-ed pages, including a plea from Mort Zuckerman to tighten cyber security, which made up in length for what it lacked in technical knowledge. And today California Senator Dianne Feinstein again contributed to the newspaper with a suggestion that Assange be prosecuted under the Espionage Act 1917 even though a number of lawyers have already publicly noted that this would be both difficult and unlikely.
I attended a really interesting event here at Columbia’s Journalism School last week where FCC Commissioner Michael Copps gave a talk about reforming the media. Yochai Benkler, Harvard law professor and the author of Wealth of Networks commented that he thought that the nature of the latest disclosures demonstrated that the job of the mainstream media has now become one simply of ‘amplification’. Referring to the efforts by news organisation such as the New York Times to consult with the government on which areas of the documentation to redact, Benkler added that ‘The next Daniel Ellsberg [who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times] would not risk their career, or their liberty, going to the New York Times’.
Maybe a little unfair. Its editor Bill Keller will not have endeared himself to Washington with the continuing publication of the diplomatic cables and their content. The NYT’s daily online reporting of the case through The Lede blog has been one of the best sources on the web for telling the story (and it rewards this blogging-the-news treatment).
Benkler however does identify a central truth: that many, if not all, news organisations are uneasy with either the philosophy or the required skills of performing the same function as Wikileaks. It would be fascinating to know, if handed the cables on a thumb drive from an original source, how many news organisations would have handed them back, or published far more selectively.
It is an excellent exercise for students (and editors) to think through what they would do. Many diplomatic and overseas correspondents one suspects already had a defacto access to the essence of the cables through their relationship with diplomats. Otherwise how are we so unsurprised by their content.
Wikileaks has ignited a debate about the rights and responsibilities attached to freeing information.It has illustrated that Governments, however well intentioned, do not have the best judgement in terms of what it is right for citizens to know. It has shown that the established media no longer necessarily gets to make that call either, and forces us all to think about the consequences of that shift.
These questions are more pressing even than the constant din about finding new business models to sustain purpose. Finally we are talking about purpose first.
How many news organisations now feel differently about how to host and serve content across the web in the wake of Amazon using its commercial prerogative to kick Wikileaks off its servers? How many correspondents and editors would balk at ruining long term relationships with the State Department to publish classified material of the leaked cables-type?
In teaching the next generation of news journalists there has to be a recognition that their skills will have to extend to these areas and more besides. Another excellent blogger on Wikileaks is Aaron Bady (zunguzungu) who produced two pieces of thorough analysis in the wake of the leaks. One was a critique of Assange’s ideology. And the second striking piece, published today was this 7000 word essay which picks apart the proposition that the secrecy of the cables helped diplomats do their jobs. Bady’s long piece is really worth reading, and part of his conclusion is here:
I don’t know how to highly to value that proof; I’m not sure whether Wikileaks just adds to a store of knowledge that we already have or if it represents something new. But the idea that it’s a bad thing to know more about the how the governments that act in our names actually behave is laughable, and the idea that impeding their ability to act secretly prevents them from advancing the cause of justice and human rights, it seems to me, is utterly without merit.
Journalism is not just an intermediary in this, it is part of this. Journalists need to know what they think about the mission of Wikileaks and others like it, and they need to know where they would stand if the data dropped onto their desks and the government pressured them to be silent.