By defending the organization as media, which we should, we may invite some unwanted consequences
Twitter may be the worst medium around for nuance, but a series of 140-character messages can at least clarify a disagreement. A couple of conversations there last night brought home some fundamental issues in the WikiLeaks affair, at least as it affects the future of journalism and free speech.
One conversation was with a journalist friend, Jason Pontin, editor of the MIT Technology Review. Like many people, he’s not thrilled with all of what Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks team are doing. But when he boiled down a key issue to this — “Is @wikileaks a media entity, and is Assange a journalist?” — he hit the heart of a debate that is going to rage in coming weeks and months.
If I’m right, and I pray I’m not, the debate will lead to a drastic weakening of the American people’s already eroded right to know what their government is doing in their name and with their money. It will also lead to federal licensing of journalists in America, which would be an absolute disaster for the craft.
The debate will arise if, as seems increasingly likely, the Obama administration charges, extradites and tries Assange for espionage, using an old law, the Espionage Act of 1917, in new and, if successful, hugely destructive ways. This notion has already been aired twice, among other places, on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, where executive power is deemed essentially limitless when it comes to anything relating to national security or crime (except most corporate wrongdoing, of course).
In today’s edition, for example, an Op-Ed piece by Gabriel Schoenfeld insists that Assange could easily be charged under the law. He acknowledges that newspapers have published secrets on many occasions, but they lacked the “criminal ‘bad faith’” needed to be convicted. He also implies that the New York Times should have been charged in the Pentagon Papers case. He concludes:
WikiLeaks is something else. It is not informing our democracy but waging war on its ability to conduct diplomacy and defend itself. If Mr. Assange were tried before a jury and sent to jail, our security would be enhanced and our cherished freedoms not abridged one whit.
WikiLeaks is something else, but not the way Schoenfeld thinks. It is very much “informing our democracy” — among other things, exposing some egregious lies our government seems to have told. If he wants to mind-read Assange and company to assume they want to ruin diplomacy and our national defense, let me mind-read and suggest that the documents, on balance, have shone a valuable light into some ugly corners that needed illumination. That is what journalists do, isn’t it, when they do their jobs?
When Pontin posed his question, I answered, reprising an earlier posting here this week, “Yes, WikiLeaks is a media org. Defend them and you’re defending yourself. No one’s asking you to like them.” (I’ve made tiny edits in quoted tweets here, to fix misspellings, grammar and punctuation.)
Jason said he understood why new-media advocates might say that. He also saw logic in a traditional-media argument that WikiLeaks “lacks most of the defining characteristics of journalism.” He went on to say that WikiLeaks “doesn’t report or create; doesn’t synthesize and analyze; has an agenda other than truth-telling; etc.”
Another Twitter user chimed in with similar thoughts. He’s a military public affairs person (who emphasizes that he speaks for himself on Twitter and is in no way acting there as a spokesman for the military). He wrote, sarcastically, “Sure @wikileaks is a media company with all those articles and bylines … oh, wait … oops.” I asked if only media companies deserve the First Amendment. Not the point, came the reply: “My premise is we get terms right and stop categorizing them as ‘media.’” And this follow-up: “They don’t create. They redistribute.”
The idea that journalism can exist only with the act of synthesis and analysis, and with no agenda but truth-telling, doesn’t stand up to reality. If it did, much of what appears in the major media today would fail that test, certainly on the “synthesis and analysis” element; when reporters serve as stenographers, uncritically writing down what the rich and powerful say and neglecting to tell their audiences when the rich and powerful are lying, the only synthesis involved is deciding which quotes to include.
WikiLeaks, far from indiscriminate dumping of what it has unearthed, has demonstrated increasing sensitivity to the impact of the information. The New York Times showed the government what it wanted to report, and took government “advice” on what to exclude. WikiLeaks tried to get the State Department’s help in vetting sensitive documents but was rebuffed. It tried to be responsible in what could be called a journalistic way — much more so than its critics are claiming — but our government refused. Was this because the government wanted what it might consider clean-ish hands when it charged this particular media organization with spying?
Even engaging in this debate worries me, because to do so suggests that the people we call journalists have more advanced free-speech rights than the rest of us. I vehemently disagree with that notion. I do believe, however, that acts of journalism are worthy of certain special protections in certain special circumstances.
This is why so-called shield laws — giving protection to whistle-blowers by giving journalists some immunity from orders to disclose them in most cases — can be pernicious. When they attempt to define who the journalists are, as opposed to what qualifies as journalism, they inevitably lead toward this: The government, or its agent, decides who qualifies as a bona fide journalist.
This is where the WikiLeaks conversation could take us, too. By appropriately defending it as a media organization, as we anticipate prosecution to follow government’s current persecution, we invite the question of what kind of leak-driven website wouldn’t be. Again, we end up with government licensing. We don’t want to go there.
A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here. More Dan Gillmor.
More Related Stories
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
- Morgan Freeman sleeps during televised interview
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11