Wikileaks Has Changed Journalism, But It Didn’t Do It Alone

by Matthew L. Schafer

“The greatest danger in this country today is not the release of these documents, but the secrecy, the deception, the politics, the manipulation which is undermining the confidence of the American people in both political parties.”  A response to Wikileaks?  Not quite.  Nor was this an apology from any contemporary politician to the American people.  Instead, it is history doing what it does best: repeating itself.

As the above quoted Senator George McGovern said, speaking to The New York Times in June of 1971, the release of the Pentagon Papers was necessary to repair public confidence in government.  It would be a lie to say that McGovern enjoyed no opposition to his desire to open the veil on the United States’ own account into the Vietnam War.  Indeed, the fight over the papers led eventually to the historic Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. United States.  It was there that Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Today, the United States, along with the rest of the world, is grappling again with the ethical, political, and moral ramifications of transparency in the 21st century.  Wikileaks, a clearing house for secret documents of all kinds, describes itself simply as “a media organization.”  It further outlines its principles, saying that its work is based on the “defense of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history.”

Despite the admittedly admirable goals, Wikileaks has met pushback from both corporate entities and governments across the world—many of whom believe (and perhaps rightly so) that Wikileaks is too cavalier in its pursuit of transparency.  In the past few weeks, following its release of secret U.S. diplomacy cables, Wikileaks has been dropped from Amazon’s cloud computing service and Visa, Mastercard, and Paypal services.  It eventually moved to servers in Sweden; now, the website is accessible via a .ch domain address.

Wikileaks, founded in 2006, was not an instant success. Instead, it took three years for it to gain access to the mainstream media stage, becoming a household name in early 2010. (Click to enlarge)

While Wikileaks battles to stay alive, it continues to force journalists, politicians, and academics alike to come to terms with journalism’s role in this new endeavor.  Suggestions of whether Wikileaks is good or bad aside, it seems necessary to briefly survey the evolving journalistic landscape and Wikileaks’ place within it.  Indeed, with the new Wikileaks-esque startup, OpenLeaks, it appears that whistleblower websites are here to stay.

Some have suggested that Wikileaks has not changed journalism.  Looking solely at the number of documents Wikileaks has released, however, the argument that nothing has changed is quite weak.  Since its advent in 2006, Wikileaks has released information on U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, information on the Kenyan government, environmental abuses around the world, and the list goes on.  Is this journalism though?

Wikileaks’ place in the information ecosystem does not amount to traditional journalism.  It is something entirely separate from traditional ideas about who a journalist is or what journalism is.  It is doubtful that Wikileaks, even a year ago, would fall into anyone’s conception of the Fourth Estate.  Yet, the traditional Fourth Estate, defined by the likes of Walter Cronkite and I.F. Stone, has lost the ambiance it once had.  It was battered by calls of inadequacy (or even incompetence) in the run up to the Iraq War, and more recently suffers from a paralysis of political punditry.

So, perhaps it is not surprising that Wikileaks is as popular as it currently is.  The most interesting aspect of the entire episode is Wikileaks sudden entrance onto the world stage–thanks largely (if not entirely) to the traditional media.  Wikileaks saw little exposure for the first three years of its life as an Internet startup, overworked and underfunded.  (It stopped publishing as recently as January of 2010).

It wasn’t until the Afghan War Logs that Wikileaks broke into the mainstream.  It wasn’t only the gravity of the documents that were leaked that led to the increased exposure for Wikileaks.  Instead, it was an ironic partnership between Wikileaks and several legacy newspapers, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel.  Without the weight of these media behemoths behind its content, it is unclear the impact that Wikileaks alone would have had.  As such, many are not buying the notion that Wikileaks has changed much, if anything.

“The notion that this experience has somehow profoundly changed journalism, the way that information gets out or changed the way that diplomacy happens, seems rather exaggerated,” Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, said in the Times recently.  “The scale of it was unusual, but was it different in kind from the Pentagon Papers or revelation of Abu Ghraib or government eavesdropping? I think probably not.”

In spite of Keller’s doubts, database journalism, especially the kind that Wikileaks specializes in, is here to stay.  This is not to say that journalists are on the way out the door; the opposite is actually true.  The massive amount of raw data and information that WikiLeaks provides is absolutely useless without the trained eye of a journalist, bringing context to the chaos.  The average news consumer has little desire to wade through document after document in hopes of stumbling upon something interesting.

Perhaps this is what Keller is getting at.  The mainstream media is integral to the success of Wikileaks.  Indeed, during the November diplomatic cables release, The New York Times registered over 18 million unique visitors, while Wikileaks measured just over 350,000.  It is clear that Wikileaks is not a destination website, which automatically makes it dependent on the larger platforms of the mainstream media–not to mention the increased exposure from other media outlets that are influenced by media outlets like the Times.

What is unclear, however, is how both old and new media—especially in the case of Wikileaks and legacy media—will work together, and how each organization’s motives will wash with the others.  As one political scientist said, the interesting dynamic is not a result of technological differences (i.e. old media/new media rivalries), but instead differences in their missions as organizations.  Indeed, Wikileaks and The New York Times are not bound by the same journalistic covenant, and it is unclear if and when those differences will compromise their relationship.

Wikileaks’ full impact will not be felt for years to come, just as the press’ failings during the run up to the Iraq War went unnoticed for several years.  Nonetheless, for better or worse, Wikileaks is challenging those in the United States to come to terms with the theory of the freedom of the press versus the actuality of the freedom of the press.  It’s easy to embrace the theory.  It is far more difficult to deal with the actuality, but it is the price we have agreed to pay for a free and open information culture.

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
This entry was posted in First Amendment, Media Policy, Political Communication and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wikileaks Has Changed Journalism, But It Didn’t Do It Alone

  1. Pingback: Top Ten: A Year in Media as Told by LWR | Lippmann Would Roll

  2. Pingback: The Search For 'Real News': Americans Increasingly Turn To Alternative Media For Information

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