Wikileaks; To Tell the truth or shoot the messanger?

Cover of Time magazine December 13 2010

Wikileaks; To tell the truth or Shoot the Messenger?

 “Political truth is libel; religious truth, blasphemy.”

William Hazlitt “Common Places” Literary Examiner Sept.-Dec. 1823

The call to tell the truth is a difficult one to heed, especially at a time of crisis.[1]

The crisis not only encompasses the loss of jobs for journalists; but a hesitancy among those who remain to report news accurately, with veracity and objectivity. Hesitancy and hunger to remain employed has resulted in, “a loss for democracy.”[2]

The recent dumping of diplomatic U.S. cables onto the whistleblower website Wikileaks has provided those who are willing to read, digest and critically think through the events following Nov. 22 with an accurate account of where journalism now stands. If Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange is guilty of anything, it is neglecting to adhere to a code of ethics which brings “uniformity to the newsgathering process.”[3]

It can be argued that the cables, being stolen, violate journalistic ethics.

“Staffers may not steal or knowingly receive stolen documents regardless of their importance to a story.” [4]

This places any journalists or editors responsible for the printing of cable information in direct violation of this ethic. To not inform the public of the contents of the diplomatic cables once in a journalist’s possession however would be to violate the most important discipline for news, “Independence and the refusal to lie.”[5]

Pulitzer prize winning reporter Steve Croll described the Wikileaks website as lacking in “an ethical culture that is consonant with the ideals of a free media.”[6] Croll continues to protect his own position as a journalist who bends the ethics to suit his own need to tell the truth; or at least his version of it, but condones shooting the messenger;

“Assange declares that he is pioneering an improved, daring form of journalism. That profession, however, despite its flaws, has constructed its legitimacy by serving as a check on governmental and corporate power within constitutional arrangements that assume the viability of the rule of law. The Times and the Washington Post, in successfully defending their decision to publish the Pentagon Papers before the Supreme Court, extended considerably the political impact of their revelations.”[7]

In reality the Times and the Washington Post have both benefited from Cable Gate while enjoying the protection of freedom of the press. The cables themselves have provided the media with extensive fodder. Croll’s stance is one of caginess towards a job that must bow to the powers that be.

David Samuels writing for the Atlantic takes an oppositional stance and defends Assange and cites the fear of lawsuits prevents journalists from writing the ‘truth.”

“It is a fact of the current media landscape that the chilling effect of threatened legal action routinely stops reporters and editors from pursuing stories that might serve the public interest – and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. Every honest reporter and editor in America knows that the fact that most news organizations are broke, combined with the increasing threat of aggressive legal action by deep-pocketed entities, private and public, has made it much harder for good reporters to do their jobs, and ripped a hole in the delicate fabric that holds our democracy together.”[8]

Inadequate journalism provides the public with half-truths, which are ultimately lies. In the U.S. Cable Gate has provided us with a true sense of what goes on behind closed bureaucratic doors. Panic has spread systematically.

On Democracy Now Amy Goodman revealed authoritarian emails from Columbia University alumni working in the State Department to students in the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

“The documents released in the past few months through wikileaks are still considered classified documents [The State Department] recommends that you do not post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information wich is part of most positions with the federal government.” [9]

Goodman also said that State Department staffers were advised against logging on to wikileaks at home; access to the site was blocked at the State Department.[10]

Matthew Dowd quoted his eldest son who served in the army for five years and was deployed to Iraq for a year and a half.[11]

“When as a country did we become a place where the government gets upset when its secrets are revealed but has no problem knowing all our secrets and invading our privacy?”[12]

Dowd develops the thought even further, “When did we decide that revealing the truth about the government is wrong?” and continues on to say, “When did we decide to trust the government more than its citizens…why is the media complicit in this?”[13]

James Moore develops the true focus of the wikileaks crisis for an article in The Huffington Post.

“If journalism were functioning at appropriate levels, there would have been stories that reported some of the information contained in the cables now published around the globe.”[14]

When Julian Assange dumped the diplomatic cables onto Wikileaks, the events in those cables were history, the events had already happened. The public could do little to change the events. What we do with the knowledge we now possess is critical. Three things have happened since November 22 and Cable Gate;

First, the public is now more aware of backdoor dealings in the political arena. In reality we can do nothing to alter this state of affairs as the wheels of politics were revolving in this direction long before Wikileaks and Cable Gate and will continue to do so, under presumably more secretive measures, long after Wikileaks and Cable Gate.

Second; The Media has been shown up by Wikileaks. Journalists and editors who are fortunate enough to remain in jobs are compelled to return to the true task of reporting accurately; “exposing corruption and injustices around the world.”[15]

Finally; Assange has single-handedly brought up a re-evaluation of the Espionage Act and possibly a stricter definition of it also.

Julian Assange is not a journalist, he does not have a code of ethics and neither does he adhere to ethical behavior which good journalists abide by. Assange does however raise two good questions, both have needed to be answered for quite sometime;

1. What has happened to journalism around the globe?

2. What effect does the internet have on the media?

As social networking grows and governments shut down internet access to stop the spread of information and to prevent the world from witnessing chaos, this we have seen in Burma and more recently in Egypt, the impact of instant access to news as it is happening is a force to be reckoned with.

Are we comfortable knowing about corruption and living with it, or do we arm ourselves with the knowledge that governments do corrupt acts and we can have a say in that by staying informed?

Wikileaks showed us through the internet that governments have done and more than likely will continue to do corrupt acts. What we do with that information when we process it will determine whether we are complacent by-standers or activists for our rights to information.

[1] The Death and Life of American Journalism by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols     pg. 18

[2]U.S. Newsroom Employment Declines,” American Society of Newspaper Editors, survey published April 16 2009

[3] Associate Collegiate Press Model Code of Ethics by Arthur Deluca and Tom Rolnicki

[4] Ibid

[5] What is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism by Jack Fuller

pg. 140

[6] The New Yorker “Leaks” by Steve Coll November 8, 2010

[7] ibid

[8] The Atlantic “The Shameful Attack on Julian Assange” by David Samuels Dec. 5 2010

[9] Democracy Now. Org The War and Peace Report by Amy Goodman Dec. 3 2010

[10] ibid

[11] National Journal of Common Sense “To Tell The Truth” by Matthew Dowd Dec. 4 2010

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] The Huffington Post “Wikileaks and the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity” by James Moore Dec. 3 2010

[15] Democracy The War and Peace Report  “Is Wikileaks’ Julian Assange a Hero?” by  Glen Greenwald


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