WikiLeaks unhelpfully publicizes classified information

Julian Assange’s website WikiLeaks publicizes classified documents, but shouldn’t pose as journalism.

This week, the online, self-proclaimed media organization WikiLeaks published its most controversial treasure trove of unreleased, classified documents yet in its short history. Since 2006, WikiLeaks has been the go-to repository for leaking highly classified government documents on the web.

The organization’s policy of taking information that the government and corporations work hard to keep under wraps and making it public has created a stir. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the leak “embarrassing” and “awkward.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the dissemination “not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests, [but] an attack on the international community.”
WikiLeaks has obtained a massive database of “cables” — an outdated word describing any form of official government communiqué — between U.S. officials and foreign diplomats and emissaries.

It’s easy to see why American policymakers are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, and why nations are seeking to bring down WikiLeaks’ spearhead Julian Assange. Over a quarter of a million such transmissions were made available by the organization to major world publications, including The New York Times.

Its most recent leaks — made available earlier this week — included information on, among other things, the following:

  • Early stages of planning for the collapse of North Korea between the U.S., South Korea and China;
  • U.S. negotiations over political benefits with countries for taking Guantanamo Bay prisoners;
  • Evidence of a calculated cyber terrorism attack by China on Google’s servers.

The primary, overarching theme of the most recent transmissions show just how dramatically the attacks of Sept. 11 have colored American foreign policy. The leaks could have far-reaching implications for American foreign relations.

WikiLeaks: journalism or something else?

The WikiLeaks saga makes it relevant to ask: Are the anarchist antics of Assange good journalism, or reckless endangerment of peace and international security?
Assange, from Australia, argues that he is merely practicing the First Amendment, and that his work is journalism at its finest.

But what Assange circulates cannot be treated as journalism in the purest sense. For starters, Assange and his people rarely know the actual sources of their information, which is sent in various ways.

Even when information is published anonymously by a news organization, at least the reporter and an editor know the verified names involved. Papers and publications go out of their way to secure sources and confirm the accuracy of their information — or pay the price. Journalists caught dealing with false or ill-gotten information are a pariah among their peers.

Unfortunately, Assange is correct in his statement that many journalists are not doing their jobs properly. Much of the industry has fallen prey to markets, telling people what they will pay to hear rather than what they need to hear.

Pushing back against celebrity journalism

For example, how is pursuing stories about the lifestyle of the Palin family or the stitches President Obama needed after a game of basketball truly acting in the best interest of the people? Sure, those stories are entertaining, but what stories aren’t being told because journalists are caving in to the pressure to tell the “easy” stories? Journalists have not only the right, but the responsibility to track government expenditures and doings. If the government will not be transparent for the people they supposedly serve, then it is the role of the press to do so for them.

What would have happened if, for example, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein hadn’t risked their reputations and their very lives to uncover the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon administration?

WikiLeaks doesn’t meet journalistic standards

But Assange’s self-portrayal as a caped crusader of information misses the mark. By spitting out the classified transmissions between U.S. officials and their foreign counterparts, Assange proves more diplomatic voyeur than foreign policy investigator. What’s more, he’s done absolutely nothing meaningful with the data itself. Journalists are asked by the public to put news into understandable terms and a relevant context. Assange merely slings the data like so much anarchical confetti.

Just like in relationships with people, relationships between nations break down when the trust and tact that can be expected in a private conversation is compromised. Nobody tells a gossiper anything if they know what’s good for them. So it is with international diplomacy.

The difference between an instance like Watergate and what Assange has done with WikiLeaks is one simple word: discretion. As journalists, it is our fundamental duty not only to disseminate information, but to do so responsibly. Skepticism of those in power is not only a necessary, but a good thing for anyone intending to be a journalist. The government can handle its own public relations. Journalists don’t need to be one more vessel of that. But the un-tempered hatred for government Assange has displayed goes far beyond a healthy skepticism that looks out for the best interest of the governed, or of the affected. It creates only chaos.

As citizens — and as aspiring journalists — we reprove WikiLeaks for failing to use discretion concerning its information. There is a very fine line between good journalism and bad anarchy; Julian Assange needs to find it.

0 0 votes
Article Rating