Did Wikileaks Cross the Line?

Is no secret safe?

That’s the moral to the Wikileaks war log story: you never know what might be leaked. Of course, that itself is nothing new: Whenever we reveal information to even one person, we risk it being spread. The ethic of confidentiality (and privacy) rests with the recipient of that information.

So what’s new now? There are more means to get information since it is pooled and digital. There are more means to share information; Daniel Ellsberg had to go through media to spread his Pentagon Papers while Wikileak chose to go through media so they could add value (perspective and attention) but didn’t have to. And there are new means to stay anonymous in the process.

I’m writing a book arguing that we are becoming more public and that’s good – and that institutions (government, companies) have no choice but to live up to our new standards of transparency and openness. But I am also examining when transparency goes too far.

Is the Wikileaks story an example of crossing a line? First, we have to ask where the line should be. I think it has to move so that our default, especially in government, is transparency. Rather than asking what should be made public we should ask why something should be kept private. Imagine if all government information and actions were public except matters of security and personal and private identification. There will be pressure to head there.

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be moved by force.

Now that they’ve made the war log public, it makes us examine the impact.

We need to ask whether the knowledge that anything written down could be made public will cause less to be written – and we lose information in the long run. That is my concern about efforts to make *all* government communication, including person-to-person email, permanent and public. I imagine that people will stop saying important things in email and instead pick up the phone and we lose the record.

We need to ask whether an ethic of transparency can be expected when leakers can be anonymous and their leaks swift.

We need to ask whether the government would have been better off making more public so that the leaker’s selective publication does not solely set the agenda and the government is stuck reacting.

In the war logs, we are learning things we should know. It’s the leakers – Wikileaks and its three media outlets – who are deciding what not to make public (with some consultation, post-leak, from government) and what should be open. So government loses the ability to decide secrets. Now leakers do. Which side do we trust to decide?

The sane response to leaks, I think, is to open up as much as possible. Then there’s nothing to leak except the things that shouldn’t be leaked. If we had the faith that we knew more, there’d be fewer leaks, fewer reasons to.

I don’t think this is an inexorable process of opening everything, of making no secret safe. As much as I advocate transparency, I don’t advocate that. But when you don’t know how many secrets there are, when there are too many secrets, then everything can be a leak – in Afghanistan or in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless government and business take on a credible and complete ethic of transparency, they will hand over the job of transparency to leakers and no secret is safe.

ANOTHER THOUGHT: This story is a step to the end of access journalism. (NO, it won’t end. Whenever people like me declare the death of something, disbelieve and discount it; we’re just saying we’re heading away from something).

But Wikileaks didn’t need, doesn’t want, won’t ever get official, journalistic, beat access. The derailing of a general in Rolling Stone didn’t come from a beat reporter who cared about access anymore. ProPublica’s work isn’t built on access.

When I talk about how little is spent on investigative reporting in America – as a proportion of total editorial spending across all media, it’s minuscule … microscopic – editors remind me that my calculation doesn’t include beats and beats are the heart of reporting. True and not true. It’s true to the extent that we want ongoing coverage and want it performed by people who build up experience if not expertise in the subject. It’s not true to the extent that reporters who depend on access from the subjects won’t ruin the relationship by breaking the subject’s secrets or the access (and the reporter’s supposed value) ends. (This is why reporters aren’t supposed to blog their opinions about their beats, according to fresh orthodoxy: They would lose access.)

In access journalism, leaks come from the subject. In unaffiliated journalism, leaks come in spite of the subject. As more reporting is done through mechanisms like Wikileaks and ProPublica and bloggers and advocates, I think we’ll see more breaking of secrets, which reinforces my point above: the best way to fight leaks is transparency (not black-out paint).

The Pentagon learned that lesson just a bit when it realized that giving more access would mean more control. Thus the embedding program in Iraq and Afghanistan. But news organizations can’t afford to have reporters embedded in the war zone. Coverage was too dependent on relationships. That honeymoon is ended.

The coverage of this war revealed much of what we know from the war logs. Alex Thomson says, though, that the logs validated what we know. They added facts we couldn’t get with access.

As news organizations shrink, we’ll be able to afford less access journalism – fewer beat reporters building relationships with their subjects – and more reporting – and subversion – from people who have a viewpoint and an agenda. The tone and means of journalism changes. It becomes more uncomfortable. But then, isn’t journalism supposed to be uncomfortable?

: MORE: Many notes from Jay Rosen here: “I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem.”

Jay talks about stateless journalism. Dave Winer says the blogosphere is that. I don’t think the issue is that journalism is stateless but instead that journalism is becoming independent of organizations (pace Clay Shirky). Journalism lacks affiliation. Anybody can feed WIkileaks; Wikileaks can feed anybody. The organizational – nevermind state – point of control disappears. Journalism is everywhere and its up to the public to decide what news is.

Though from another perspective, stateless does matter as we’re seeing more of it across many sectors of society. Our enemy in this war is stateless. Businesses are stateless. Journalism now becomes stateless. I believe the tools of publicness – that is, the internet’s – enable us to organize new societies around states.

: MORE: Andrew Potter breaks down the discussion into four questions.

Cross posted at buzzmachine.com

Jeff Jarvis blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. The author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009), Jarvis is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at ...read more

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