The WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story is a watershed moment for journalism in the online era. It didn’t just recalibrate the official Afghan war narrative. It also exposed a raw nerve about the leadership role of legacy news media in serving democracy’s vital information needs.
While its headline-stealing panache offends some the news-world’s high priesthood, the entire imbroglio has only reinforced the value of traditional journalism as a formal, methodological and professional process of inquiry and publishing.
All this adds up to a truly new media ecology, one that has been struggling to be born, and which, if it survives and propagates, will change the conversation of democracy, the nature of self-governance, and the business of journalism.
No boundaries, no borders.
NYU media observer Jay Rosen notes that WikiLeaks is a “stateless news organization,” one that can “report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it.”
In doing so, Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers asserts, WikiLeaks is “changing the news power structure” in profound ways, even as it deepens the need for professional journalism as a practice:
“It has cracked open governments and corporations without apparent repercussions because it has no headquarters, no printing press or transmission tower, no physical address. It’s just a confederation of skilled volunteers and Web servers. In that sense, WikiLeaks is of the Internet.
“In inserting itself between source and publisher, WikiLeaks has shifted power away from the monoliths that once determined what is news and toward the people who, before the Web, would have been stopped in the newspaper lobby before they could see a reporter.
“WikiLeaks allowed The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel access to the Afghanistan war logs a month early as long as they kept quiet until WikiLeaks published them on its site. In striking that bargain, those news organizations found themselves not as gatekeepers of information, but as guests with VIP access.
“And yet WikiLeaks needed these titans of old media. It needed their reporting, their reach, their distribution networks, their reputation.”
Sources vs. partners.
This is an uneasy relationship and has fomented bitterness amongst press champions and critics alike.
As quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review’s hard-boiled retelling of how the war logs made the leap from a wiki to the traditional press, New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt takes pains to distance his work from Assange
“I’ve seen Julian Assange in the last couple of days kind of flouncing around talking about this collaboration like the four of us were working all this together,” says Schmitt. ”But we were not in any kind of partnership or collaboration with him. This was a source relationship. He’s making it sound like this was some sort of journalistic enterprise between WikiLeaks, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and that’s not what it was.”
In Myers’ Poynter column, Times editor Bill Keller also carefully (and more soberly) also defines it as a source relationship — one that is altogether seemly and responsible:
“Deep Throat had an agenda. Ellsberg had an agenda,” Keller told me by e-mail. “That doesn’t invalidate the information they provide us. If we refused to work with sources whose motivations we didn’t share, a lot of important stories would go untold.
“The critical thing is what we do with the material — check its authenticity, draw our own conclusions from it, put it in context, and lay it all out for readers on our terms, not the source’s terms.”
The difference between “source” and “partner” is a defining issue for journalism as a pragmatic industry and an idealistic practice, with implications for the power and legitimacy of both.
Press leadership or media innovation?
Consider the bitterness of marketing blogger Jordan Zimmerman, a non-journalist everyman who seems to suggest that if the Afghan war-logs story were left to legacy news media, it would never have even been investigated in the first place:
“The media has been censored over the years. It’s now made up a bunch of lackluster, lazy journalists who are afraid to go after a hard-core story. Maybe it’s because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. Whatever the reason, it’s an outrage. No wonder newspaper readership is declining! It’s because journalists today lack the guts to write the stories that need to be written … WikiLeaks, on the other hand, isn’t afraid. They put it all on the line to talk about real issues… Whatever happened to free speech, and freedom of the press? These are fundamental principles on which this country was built. Don’t people deserve to know the truth? At the very least, don’t they deserve the opportunity to have all the information available and the freedom to draw their own conclusions?”
Leslie Griffith, an award-winning SF Bay Area TV news anchor, expresses the same bitterness even as she praises WikiLeaks as a serpent-slaying “Wiki-Tiki-Tavi”:
“Now, we have Pvt. Bradley Manning and the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, doing what reporters should have been doing all along [emphasis added]. Out of fear of being fatally scooped, and in the continued hope of keeping America dancing to their jingoism tune, the Pentagon and FOX News are now calling these whistleblowers traitors.”
WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum sounds a similar note in an interview with his longtime friend Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, that uniquely hacker-centric bucket of fascinations, cultural observation and anti-secrecy sentiment:
Boing Boing: What do you think of the White House reactions so far to the “Afghan War Diaries” leak?
Jacob Appelbaum: It’s clear that the White House is attempting to shoot the messenger. These documents provide concrete evidence of events that have occurred during the last six years of the Afghan war.
Boing Boing: The Department of Defense has called Wikileaks a “national security threat.”
Jacob Appelbaum: Wikileaks is not a national security threat; we are an international security promise.
Boing Boing: What do you mean by that?
Jacob Appelbaum: We promise our sources that we will get their information to the public. We have released information about what is actually happening in Afghanistan. We are telling you the facts as the US military saw fit to document them. We are telling you these facts because they document an important first-hand perception of everyday life in Afghanistan that our source felt important to show the world.
This new media-ecology is not yet mature nor even truly widespread. But it promises to be an extraordinary growth medium for true democracy — i.e. one not plagued by what Lawrence Lessig calls “the economy of influence.”
Meanwhile, journalists must learn to love, or at least live with, the hackers and open-society advocates who are at once their sources, their collaborators and their goads.
This comment was updated with light copy edits on July 7, 2011.