TECHNOLOGY TODAY: WikiLeaks Sheds Light on Online Journalism’s Future
One of the criticisms of the New Media of blogs, wikis, and other strictly online attempts to get the word out is the paucity of what the Old Media of newspapers and magazines does best: investigate.
It’s fine to comment on what others have uncovered, exposed, or otherwise researched. But someone has to do the initial hard work, and with the decreasing number of print publications resulting from the more efficient economics of the Internet and the consolidation of huge media corporations, less investigative journalism is being done to uncover abuses at levels ranging from school board meetings to the United Nations.
The major brouhaha recently surrounding the Web site WikiLeaks (www.wikileaks.org) has shed light on the possible future of the “fourth estate” role of the media, and that light makes details visible that at this early stage appear both positive and negative.
In its latest coup, WikiLeaks in late November released more than 250,000 confidential documents that had been leaked to it, diplomatic cables containing detailed correspondence between the U.S. State Department and U.S. embassies around the world.
The documents showed U.S. diplomacy with its hair down. People tasked with managing the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world talked openly about their views on other officials, other countries, wars, and a host of other sensitive issues. Such exposure gives ordinary citizens a clearer view on how things really are. But it also makes it more difficult for diplomats to do their jobs.
Previously, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 documents about the Iraq War and still other documents about the Afghanistan War.
The person behind WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is a 39-year-old former physics and math student and computer programmer who was born in Australia. He moves around from country to country, no doubt for his own safety, and he moves the hosting of his site from provider to provider, no doubt for its safety.
The response to WikiLeaks’ action has run the gamut. At one extreme, Time magazine, long a bastion of big-splash and sometimes sensationalistic exposés, applauded WikiLeaks’ promotion of openness, citing credibility as the ultimate benefit. Nearly four years ago Time had predicted that WikiLeaks “could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act,” a statement that WikiLeaks quotes at its own site.
The Time take on WikiLeaks dovetails with Assange’s own explanation for his actions. In his essay “State and Terrorist Conspiracies,” Assange argues that unjust organizations are most fearful of openness. His target is “authoritarian powers.”
At the other extreme, former President Bill Clinton in a recent public appearance worried that many diplomatic workers cited in the leaked documents could be forced to change careers and that some sources of the most sensitive information could lose their lives.
As expected, Wikipedia has given conspiracy theorists and gloom-and-doomers a windfall. One blogger at the highly respected technology site ZDNet (www.zdnet.com) bemoaned that WikiLeaks’ actions cause lack of trust in our country on the part of other countries and may cause the leaders of other countries to engage in “idiotic things to protect their honor,” which could potentially lead to a nuclear Armageddon.
Others online have piped in with a range of interesting commentary, also running the gamut. One person characterized Assange as engaging in “a smart-aleck nyah-ing the world.” Another said that WikiLeaks “is operating at the highest level of journalism’s duty to the truth — revealing what our rulers want concealed.”
One reality of WikiLeaks is that, as currently constructed, it’s just a data dump. Assange leaves it to others to interpret the data and draw their own conclusions. That’s much in line with the Internet as a whole, where huge amounts of raw information can be found.
Lots of speculation is circulating about what WikiLeaks, and Assange, may be up to next, which by the time you read this you may already know. Among the possibilities suggested are the release of sensitive information about the leaders of the Russian government, Mexican drug lords, and millions of Americans’ personal and business bank accounts.
Two days after WikiLeak’s released the diplomatic cables, Interpol placed Assange on its red notice list of wanted persons, for “sex crimes.” The alleged actions took place in Sweden, but it’s not known at this point if there’s any legitimate basis for the charges. On Dec.7 Assange surrendered to Scotland Yard to answer the warrant issued for his arrest by Sweden.
It’s unclear at the time of this writing what legal fate will befall Assange and whether WikiLeaks and similar efforts will receive First Amendment protection.