WikiLeaks is the Facebook of journalism. And I don’t mean that in a “Yay, modern technology meets journalism! Whoopee!” sort of way. Rather, WikiLeaks, the online nonprofit group that provides an anonymous medium through which disgruntled government insiders can lead state secrets onto the Internet, is symptomatic of an age in which many people mistakenly believe that you can put information on the Web with no regard for real world consequences.
In most cases, the damage from this assumption is limited in scope, affecting only those who share the details of their personal lives. Issues include sharing private stories, pictures, or Facebook posts that can lead to rescinded job offers and broken relationships. But in the case of WikiLeaks and, in particular, its most recent “mega-leak” of over 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, the over-sharing of information has far-reaching consequences. Though WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange portrays himself as a champion of democracy and state transparency, his philosophy rests on an irresponsible idealization of civic responsibility, one that is detrimental to the very system of democracy he purports to defend.
The WikiLeaks methodology is flawed on two levels. At the most basic level, Assange and his organization ignore the functional realities of governance and diplomacy. Assange is right to argue that a government must be held accountable for its actions and, consequently, that increased transparency can be a good thing. But there also needs to be a certain level of trust between government agents and their sources of information. If sources clam up out of fear that their identities might be leaked, that leaves U.S. diplomats, for example, in the difficult position of trying to conduct research and carry out U.S. policy in an increasingly less communicative environment. As Wolfgang Ischinger points out in The New York Times, “Every single leak damages trust and trust is the single most precious commodity in diplomacy.”Trust is similarly important in the realm of domestic politics and public relations. Paul Schroeder also of The New York Times, said that “leaks like this simply make those in power retreat further into the shadows to defend themselves and their positions. Consider how Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger cut off all but their inner circle of advisers after the Pentagon Papers were published.”
Granted, the WikiLeaks documents are no Pentagon Papers. Despite Assange’s lofty rhetoric, his organization releases mountains of pure fact with no accompanying analysis. More importantly, while the Pentagon Papers revealed government conspiracy, the best WikiLeaks has to offer is an unfiltered look at the inner workings of our government. In the case of the diplomatic cables, little is provided that an avid news consumer wouldn’t already know. The scandal surrounding the leaked cables doesn’t concern their content so much as their candor. In that respect, WikiLeaks is playing a dangerous game, gambling the future of diplomacy and the safety of government officials for the sake of publishing unsurprising revelations.
It is this willingness to ignore the real world ramifications that reveal the deeper and far more concerning flaw of the WikiLeaks philosophy. Assange defends his blatant journalistic irresponsibility with idealistic rhetoric about defending democracy. He claims that by making huge swaths of information free and available to the public, he is contributing to a more democratic news environment in which people can sift through the evidence and decide for themselves what to think of their government. This sounds wonderful in theory. But this ivory tower journalism theory is impractical in the real world. Moreover, it preys on the idealists and the new media enthusiasts, and it distorts society’s sense of what an informed citizenry can and ought to be.
The idealist in me identifies with Assange. I wish people could be the understanding models of civic responsibility that he envisions them to be. Given the partisan national media, it would be a triumph of rationality if people ignored the pundits and politicians and based their opinions solely on hard evidence rather than political loyalties. But that’s not how the world works.
People have lives. They have jobs and families. They don’t have the time or inclination to spend weeks sifting through thousands upon thousands of documents, most of which are mundane or unsurprising. Dumping a treasure trove of information onto the Web doesn’t equate to a more educated and informed populace. And it certainly doesn’t equate to journalism.
In the modern age, the rules of journalism and information sharing are changing. But journalism has been and always should be a bout providing context, not just information. It is about creating a narrative through which people can understand the world around them. That is how you get a more educated populace and defend democracy. Moreover, journalists must be conscious of the ramifications of their scoops, rather than living in an illusion of idealized rhetoric. Releasing a deluge of uncontextualized information is not the future of journalistic integrity. It is the abdication of journalistic responsibility itself.