WikiLeaks and the Fate of Digital Media

The WikiLeaks saga raises an array of serious and unresolved issues about what justifies revelation of private communications and by whom. Are these the raw goods of journalism, or some new form of cyber theft in which standards are secondary to whatever the hacker can download? The consensus in a long week of asking everyone, from media panjandrums to interns, for their opinion about WikiLeaks is that there is no consensus. Officialdom is understandably agitated. The prospect of self-censorship is an ironic consequence of Internet openness. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, writing in the Wall Street Journal put it crisply: WikiLeaks "will surely have a chilling effect on the volume and degree of candor in much written material, whether cable traffic, memoranda of conversations, diaries or notes of any kind." Even all telephone conversations, we learned during the Bush years, are subject to recording.

Journalists, including those who find the material valuable, are uneasy with the source and the process. WikiLeaks will not join ProPublica or the Center for Public Integrity in the annals of digital age heroism. Yet, given the willingness of major news organizations around the world to use the material, arguing that their filter lends credibility and stature to what they receive, we had better get used to accommodating the principle that confidential communications regularly will be turned into public spectacle.

My favorite comments on this subject came from Lisa L. Waananen, now a digital associate at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, who was in a seminar I taught last spring. WikiLeaks made its first big splash in April, with video of American helicopter pilots mistakenly (but with disconcerting gusto) shooting two Reuters staffers—Namir Noor-Eldeen, a cameraman, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh—in a 2007 attack on Iraqi insurgents that left sixteen people dead, including the journalists, who were in the area to cover the firefight. Waananen correctly observed then that the episode already had been described in detail in David Finkel's The Good Soldiers, a superb portrait of a unit of the army's 2-16 Infantry Battalion, known as the Rangers. The dialogue quoted by Finkel went like this:

"All right we got about eight individuals."

"Yeah we definitely got some"

"Yeah, look at those dead bastards."

"Good shooting"

"Thank you."

The smoke was gone now and they could see everything clearly... Noor-Eldeen on top of the trash; Chmagh lying motionless on his left side.

While the video was new and attributed to "whistleblowers," Finkel already had told the story. Yet, the media attention that the video brought to WikiLeaks positioned the group as a major and laudatory new factor in war coverage. Shortly thereafter, reports surfaced that WikiLeaks was now in possession of a vast cache of Iraq, Afghanistan, and diplomatic e-mail traffic. Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, was said to be a source. He is now in custody. When the Iraq and Afghanistan material was released in October, there was a full quotient of media brouhaha supporting the notion that, on both war fronts, previously withheld information was now available, reflecting dissension, mishaps, and other problems that could influence the course of the conflicts.

In discussing that material last week, Waananen made the unassailable point that nothing WikiLeaks had revealed was comparable in impact to Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone piece in June, which led to the immediate replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Hastings' work was shoe-leather journalism of the old fashioned variety, a reporter in the right place, at the right time, whose explosive story changed the course of events.

As for the now public diplomatic communications, they were most notable in every instance that I read for underscoring—sometimes colorfully—the widely held views about the countries and personalities being described. For example, the New York Times portrait of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the political culture of his decade in power by C. J. Chivers was engrossing, but reflects the reporting of correspondents in Moscow back to the era of Boris Yeltsin. What is distinctive is that the vivid detail is attributed to cables from American envoys, which puts them in the uncomfortable position of seeing their private views splashed across front pages. How will Putin react? Or Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Nicholas Sarkozy, or any of the other politicians pungently characterized in these cables? We'll see, but the point is that these candid official assessments seem mainly to validate what we already know or suspected.

For better or worse, WikiLeaks is a creature of the Internet age. In Wikipedia (no relation, as far as I know), a mashup is defined as "a web page or application that uses and combines data, presentation or functionality from two or more sources to create new services." The disclosure of confidential material, which then gets distribution through whatever the mass media of the era tends to be, is hardly unprecedented (Daniel Ellsberg has said that, if the Internet existed in 1970, he'd have posted the Pentagon Papers there rather than bother with newspapers). WikiLeaks, its predecessors, and presumably its successors, serve a purpose if you believe in transparency. But so far, Julian Assange has been less influential than he doubtless would like to believe. Let's resist giving him and his cohorts more credit (or notoriety) than they deserve.