Does WikiLeaks Qualify as a 'Whistleblower' Site?

Semantics with big consequences for public debate

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Over the past week, news organizations Reuters, NBC, and the Associated Press have formally decided to stop identifying WikiLeaks as a "whistleblower" organization. "We think we have a better, clearer description" to replace it with, AP spokesman Paul Colford told Yahoo's Michael Calderone. On the Internet, debate about the validity of the "whistleblower" designation rages on. A sampling of opinions:

  • Why It Matters  It seems like a small point, acknowledges Calderone, but "whistleblower" remains one of the more loaded phrases in journalism. Traditionally used to describe someone "who risks a career to speak out against corruption or fraud," the media's use of the term "can affect public perceptions." A whistleblower is "probably viewed positively, as an individual speaking out against wrongdoing." Withholding the designation from WikiLeaks and Julian Assange is likely to please critics of the leaks who "wouldn't opt for any description that suggests publication of classified documents has had a positive effect."
  • Curious Timing  Gawker's Ryan Tate thinks it is telling that the three news outlets amended their style guidelines to fit with the White House's official characterization of the leaks. "What a coincidence!" he marvels. Tate is also skeptical of the AP's claim that "a website that specializes in displaying leaked information" is a clearer and more accurate designation. "[That] rolls right off the tongue," Tate scoffs.
  • Good Move The Wall Street Journal's J. Gordon Crovitz says the change reflects an enhanced understanding of Assange's motives. Explains Crovitz:
Mr. Assange is misunderstood in the media and among digirati as an advocate of transparency. Instead, this battening down of the information hatches by the U.S. is precisely his goal. The reason he launched WikiLeaks is not that he's a whistleblower--there's no wrongdoing inherent in diplomatic cables--but because he hopes to hobble the U.S., which according to his underreported philosophy can best be done if officials lose access to a free flow of information
  • Tacit Approval  By identifying Assange as a whistleblower, news outlets legitimize what Slate's Christopher Hitchens believes to be an "unscrupulous" organization. The cables are informative and compulsively readable, but that doesn't mean Assange is deserving of "mush-headed approval" from media outlets that choose to sample his "mart of ill-gotten goods."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.