WikiLeaks and potential imitators could be game changers for the relationships between journalists and the governments and companies they cover. The merits or dangers of those changes are, however, big points of contention for both the organizations that have experienced leaks and the journalists who cover them.
While it’s tough for anyone to speak about WikiLeaks with total authority, we turned to four diverse thinkers in the field: A varied group of experienced journalists with something to say.
Their insights could help the rest of us find the proper perspective on this new development in media and technology. Read on for four takes on what WikiLeaks means, and let us know your own thoughts in the comments below.
“WikiLeaks Must Be Stopped”
“WikiLeaks is not a news organization,” said Marc Thiessen. “It is a criminal enterprise.”
Thiessen is a conservative political commentator who has written articles for The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, National Review and USA Today, and his August 3rd op-ed in The Washington Post titled “WikiLeaks Must Be Stopped” is one of the most scathing indictments of WikiLeaks in a mainstream publication.
Thiessen, who served as a speechwriter for U.S. President George W. Bush, views WikiLeaks through the lens of national security. He is of the opinion that WikiLeaks’ ethics are simply nonexistent.
WikiLeaks’ collection and publication of confidential military data “arguably constitute material support for terrorism,” he said. He believes the administration of President Barack Obama not only has the right, but the responsibility to track down founder and spokesman Julian Assange and throw him in prison; then shut down his entire organization.
The post said that WikiLeaks has already exposed over 100 friendly informants and one U.S. operative, whose lives and families could now be in danger.
With at least 10,000 more documents still unreleased, Thiessen considers this an issue of national security and believes that the United States should take whatever action is necessary to prevent those documents from being released, even if it means infringing on international laws that might protect Assange and his associates.
“A New Wrinkle on an Old Idea”
WikiLeaks doesn’t change the fundamentals of journalism. Rather, it’s a new manifestation of the same journalistic process that needs “people to leak and people to dig and people to consume and explain, and people who care enough to find the documents and bring them to light,” said Mike Sager, a respected writer for Esquire, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post
“WikiLeaks is a new wrinkle on an old idea,” Sager said. “Bigger, better and faster, and more high tech, like everything else nowadays. Gumshoe 10.2 but still gumshoe.”
The site is still just a big mine full of data that has to be extracted and processed by other agents in the journalistic machine. Sorting through large piles of leaked documents isn’t new. Sager remembered a moment when John Feinstein and Bob Woodward lugged in a huge catch of documents:
“I was standing at my desk in the metro section and John Feinstein came in lugging a huge box of documents… Seeing Feinstein approach, Woodward came steaming out of his glass office with a huge grin on his face. He uttered one word (in a pre-PC era): “Doc-u-gasm!” His hokey mid-western accent (and constant wad of chewing gum) turning it into a cute bit of baudy newsroom vaudeville. We crowded around the cache to revel in our paper’s good fortune.”
WikiLeaks is the same stuff, just a different era.
“Don’t Confuse Platform With Content”
WikiLeaks, like most other Internet () “news” organizations, doesn’t provide the perspective and understanding the public actually needs, according to author and University of Chicago and Northwestern University writer-in-residence Alex Kotlowitz.
“We need to be careful that we don’t confuse platform with content,” Kotlowitz said. “WikiLeaks was able to get someone in the U.S. government to leak them these documents, and then they posted them on their website. But people turned not to WikiLeaks to help us make sense of the 92,000 pages of documents. Rather we turned to sources like The New York Times or The Guardian to help us interpret the importance of what’s there.”
The lack of proper context-providing prowess isn’t unique to WikiLeaks. Kotlowitz believes there’s a place for “rigorous, thoughtful, fairminded news sources,” but that “no one on the Internet has found a financial model to make that work.”
Google () gives blogs financial incentives to write the news that people want to hear, not what they need to hear. Often, speed is more important than allowing for deep, thoughtful analysis. The rapidly changing landscape of online news causes most stories to get brushed out of the way before they get the consideration they deserve.
WikiLeaks is a different beast, of course. It’s even less comprehensive in that it only provides the raw materials and documents with any analysis. Kotlowitz argues that we need “established news organizations to lend us their expertise in deciphering and navigating the often arcane and secret workings of both public and private institutions that shape our lives.”
WikiLeaks doesn’t, or can’t, do that; someone else has to: Its influence is constrained by the news establishment that interprets and explains the data it collects.
“WikiLeaks and the Mainstream Media Still Need Each Other”
There’s undoubtedly a symbiotic, albeit strained relationship between WikiLeks and the mainstream media. Who better to dig deeper than a fresh face who has grown up in the gray area between new and traditional media? Alexander Hotz teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, does some work for NPR, and contributes to Mashable ().
In the recent Mashable article, “Why WikiLeaks and the Mainstream Media Still Need Each Other,” Hotz adds another dimension to the idea that WikiLeaks can’t do much good without the mainstream media. Hotz goes one step further than Kotlowitz to explain that nobody would even read the leaks without mainstream media support.
When WikiLeaks released the Afghan War Logs, it did so in conjunction with The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel because — let’s face it — no one would have read the logs without someone to grab their attention, give the logs legitimacy and explain why it all mattered.
It’s hardly a community-driven exercise, thereby making “wiki” an inappropriate term. Hotz took care where others didn’t to acknowledge that WikiLeaks was “inspired by the Internet’s freedom of information culture.”
An organization that has no boundaries, no bureaucracy, and a dubious code of ethics is useful because it’s going to get scoops that The New York Times couldn’t on its own. However, those scoops might be meaningless to the public without media interpretation and validation. We’ll just have to wait to see what kind of dynamic they settle into.
More Journalism Resources From Mashable:
– Why WikiLeaks and the Mainstream Media Still Need Each Other
– Why WikiLeaks Is The Pirate Bay of Political Intelligence
– 5 Innovative Websites That Could Reshape the News
– How News Consumption is Shifting to the Personalized Social News Stream
– Can Robots Run the News?
[Image Credit: Quiltro Elemento]