14 December, 2010

Has WikiLeaks changed journalism forever?

WikiLeaks is a whistleblowing Web site that became the focus of a global debate over its role in the release of thousands of confidential messages about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the conduct of American diplomacy around the world.

The once-fringe Web site, which aims to bring to light secret information about governments and corporations, was founded in 2006 by Julian Assange, an Australian activist and journalist, along with a group of like-minded activists and computer experts.

Wikileaks made its initial reputation by publishing material as diverse as documents about toxic dumping in Africa, protocols from Guantánamo Bay, e-mail messages from Sarah Palin’s personal account and 9/11 pager messages. When it published tens of thousands of confidential military field reports about the two wars in July 2010, it was denounced by American officials for endangering the lives of soldiers and civilians.The release of some of a trove of 250,000 diplomatic cables obtained by Wikileaks led to anger and criticism from officials around the world.

Wikileaks made the material on Iraq and Afghanistan available to a number of news organizations, including The New York Times, in advance. The Guardian shared the diplomatic cable collection with The New York Times. By early December, Wikileaks had posted only a few thousand on its website.

The uproar over the diplomatic cables coincided with mounting legal troubles for Mr. Assange, its founder.

Think back to 2008, when WikiLeaks simply released documents that suggested the government of Kenya had looted its country. The follow-up in the mainstream media was decidedly muted.

Then last spring, WikiLeaks adopted a more journalistic approach — editing and annotating a 2007 video from Baghdad in which an Apache helicopter fired on men who appeared to be unarmed, including two employees of Reuters. The reviews were mixed, with some suggesting that the video had been edited to political ends, but the disclosure received much more attention in the press.

In July, WikiLeaks began what amounted to a partnership with mainstream media organizations, including The New York Times, by giving them an early look at the so-called Afghan War Diary, a strategy that resulted in extensive reporting on the implications of the secret documents.

Then in November, the heretofore classified mother lode of 250,000 United States diplomatic cables that describe tensions across the globe was shared by WikiLeaks with Le Monde, El Pais, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. (The Guardian shared documents with The New York Times.) The result was huge: many articles have come out since, many of them deep dives into the implications of the trove of documents.

Notice that with each successive release, WikiLeaks has become more strategic and has been rewarded with deeper, more extensive coverage of its revelations. It’s a long walk from WikiLeaks’s origins as a user-edited site held in common to something more akin to a traditional model of publishing, but seems to be in keeping with its manifesto to deliver documents with “maximum possible impact.”

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s founder and guiding spirit, apparently began to understand that scarcity, not ubiquity, drives coverage of events. Instead of just pulling back the blankets for all to see, he began to limit the disclosures to those who would add value through presentation, editing and additional reporting. In a sense, Mr. Assange, a former programmer, leveraged the processing power of the news media to build a story and present it in comprehensible ways. (Of course, as someone who draws a paycheck from a mainstream journalism outfit, it may be no surprise that I continue to see durable value in what we do even amid the journalistic jujitsu WikiLeaks introduces.)

And by publishing only a portion of the documents, rather than spilling information willy-nilly and recklessly endangering lives, WikiLeaks could also strike a posture of responsibility, an approach that seems to run counter to Mr. Assange’s own core anarchism.

Although Mr. Assange is now arguing that the site is engaged in what he called a new kind of “scientific journalism,” his earlier writings suggest he believes the mission of WikiLeaks is to throw sand in the works of what he considers corrupt, secretive and inherently evil states. He initiated a conspiracy in order to take down what he saw as an even greater conspiracy.

“WikiLeaks is not a news organization, it is a cell of activists that is releasing information designed to embarrass people in power,” said George Packer, a writer on international affairs at The New Yorker. “They simply believe that the State Department is an illegitimate organization that needs to be exposed, which is not really journalism.”

By shading his radicalism and collaborating with mainstream outlets, Mr. Assange created a comfort zone for his partners in journalism. They could do their jobs and he could do his.

“The notion that this experience has somehow profoundly changed journalism, the way that information gets out or changed the way that diplomacy happens, seems rather exaggerated,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, which used information from the leaks to report a series of large articles.

“It was a big deal, but not an unfamiliar one. Consumers of information became privy to a lot of stuff that had been secret before,” Mr. Keller said. “The scale of it was unusual, but was it different in kind from the Pentagon Papers or revelation of Abu Ghraib or government eavesdropping? I think probably not.”

(Read more here)

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