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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Wikileaks and the definition of journalism

We had an interesting discussion this past week in the introductory journalism class I teach at Chapman University, looking at the whole WikiLeaks saga and the arrest of Julian Assange. We didn’t get into the gory details, as does this good piece from London's Daily Mail.

Rather, our classroom discussion turned on the question of whether WikiLeaks is journalism. A few of the students (most are not journalism majors and take the class to fulfill PR requirements) thought not, that Assange was acting on an agenda, and wasn’t engaging in any journalistic acts with the leaked documents WikiLeaks posts. Where the New York Times and other papers digested the hundreds of thousands of documents and teased out nuanced stories about what the pages said and what they mean, WikiLeaks itself just posted raw material, which means it is not performing a journalistic function.

In that regard, some of them seemed to agree with the U.S. State Department, which said through Philip J. Crowley, assistant secretary, that it regards WikiLeaks as a political actor because it is espousing an agenda (the relevant part of the press briefing is below the jump, and well worth reading). Following that logic, Fox News isn’t a journalistic outlet, nor is The Nation. We enter dangerous territory when we start letting the government being covered determine who gets to cover it. From there, it's a short step to barring criticism.

I argued, and believe, that WikiLeaks is indeed a journalistic outlet and thus entitled to the full freedoms of the First Amendment. But taking a step back, I also argued that, with WikiLeaks, we are seeing the logical extreme of the wishes of people who say they don’t want journalists getting between them and the facts. These are the folks who see bias when traditional journalists dissect and digest the details of an event or topic and put the relevant elements into context.

The Internet has brought us a different, and more problematic, delivery mechanism. Over the past few years online versions of traditional print stories, unleashed from the physical constraints of a printed newspaper page, have begun giving to readers the supporting documents used by journalists to write their stories. There are links to .pdf files about municipal budgets, police reports, court transcripts and all manner of what once was the stack of paper from which we wrote our stories. Now, instead of just naming the written source, we can and often do show it to our readers. This is a good development, and helps reinforce the legitimacy of the reporting.

WikiLeaks – and, to a lesser extent, The Smoking Gun – push that model to its extreme. No dissection and digestion, just the raw reportage, letting readers essentially do the work of journalists for themselves, vetting the information, soliciting expert opinions on what it says and means, and trying to tease out the most significant details against historical context that, in the case of the WikiLeaks document drop, makes sense out of hundreds of thousands of pages of raw material.

Whatever Assange’s agenda, the function is journalistic. And it also, I hope, points up the crucial need for traditional journalists who take time to understand the subjects they cover. These are professionals who can dive into massive pools of raw information and tell people unfamiliar with the terrain exactly why, for example, it matters that the U.S. and South Korea have discussed how China could be enticed to accept a unified non-communist Korea under Seoul governance.

So, in one sense, the folks who would like their information raw and unfiltered now have it. But like my students, I doubt many of them would ever take the time to read the documents themselves, vet the material, and place it into a detached context. This is the necessary function journalism plays – to have agenda-less (one hopes) observers telling us what parts of the roiling sturm und drang of daily life really matters.

So WikiLeaks in the end shows us the new journalism. It is a crucial role, bringing to light the secrets governments would wish to hide - much more likely to be embarrassments, illegalities and miscues than information that harms the nation, or individuals. But by themselves, journalistic outlets like WikiLeaks ultimately are the path to an even deeper level of national ignorance. The information needs to be assessed and contextualized, then delivered in an understandable way. It needs that extra layer of journalistic activity.

Let’s hope the pendulum begins swinging back the other way, and a more accepting embrace of journalists by a culture that equates the entire profession with the braying hyperbole of cable commentators – left and right.

The State Department briefing:
Excerpted from the U.S. Department of State's daily press briefing, Dec. 2, 2010:
QUESTION: Do you know if the State Department regards WikiLeaks as a media organization?
MR. CROWLEY: No. We do not.
QUESTION: And why not?
MR. CROWLEY: WikiLeaks is not a media organization. That is our view.
QUESTION: So P.J., going back to the answer to your last question, have you contacted governments that have been censoring this to protest that – or sites that they have --
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not in a position to say what governments have done or what conversations have occurred between governments and media. There’s – certainly, there are countries around the world that do not have as robust a focus on these issues as ours does. That’s probably not a surprise to us, and when we do meet with these governments, we talk about media issues among key human rights issues. Our dialogue is not going to change over this.
QUESTION: P.J., on that subject of WikiLeaks, Amazon, as we know, did have them on their server for a time and then stopped doing that. And there’s a human rights group that says that Amazon was directed by the U.S. Government to stop that relationship. Do you know anything –
MR. CROWLEY: All I can say is I’m not aware of any contacts between the Department of State and Amazon.
QUESTION: Or the U.S. Government or just State?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not in a position on this particular issue to talk about the entire government. I’m just not aware of any contacts directly.
QUESTION: From your perspective, what is WikiLeaks? How do you define them, if it is not a media organization, then?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the Secretary said earlier this week, it is – one might infer it has many characteristics of some internet sites. Not every internet site you would call a media organization or a news organization. We’re focused on WikiLeaks’s behavior, and I have had personally conversations with media outlets that are reporting on this, and we have had the opportunity to express our specific concerns about intelligence sources and methods and other interests that could put real lives at risk.
Mr. Assange, in a letter to our Ambassador in the United Kingdom over the weekend, after documents had been released to news organizations, made what we thought was a halfhearted gesture to have some sort of conversation, but that was after he released the documents and after he knew that they were going to emerge publicly. So I think there’s been a very different approach. And Mr. Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities, and I think that, among other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist.
QUESTION: What is his political objective?
QUESTION: The same letter --
QUESTION: What is his political objective?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, his – I mean he could be considered a political actor. I think he’s an anarchist, but he’s not a journalist.
QUESTION: So his objective is to sow chaos, you mean?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, you all come here prepared to objectively report the activities of the United States Government. I think that Mr. Assange doesn’t meet that particular standard.
QUESTION: But just so I understand, P.J., what – I mean you just said the – that you thought he was --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, but I mean – let me – he’s not a journalist. He’s not a whistleblower. And there – he is a political actor. He has a political agenda. He is trying to undermine the international system of -- that enables us to cooperate and collaborate with other governments and to work in multilateral settings and on a bilateral basis to help solve regional and international issues.
What he’s doing is damaging to our efforts and the efforts of other governments. They are putting at risk our national interest and the interests of other governments around the world. He is not an objective observer of anything. He is an active player. He has an agenda. He’s trying to pursue that agenda, and I don’t think he can – he can’t qualify as either a journalist on the one hand or a whistleblower on the other.

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