From the “Is That a Good Thing?” desk.
Now that WikiLeaks is a household word, let’s take a moment to ponder what it represents. It is an avowedly stateless news organization. When it released its dump of approximately 80 quadzillion documents relating to the Afghanistan war, it relied on its decentralized structure to protect itself — in effect, forcing any government that would try to censor it to play whack-a-mole. Journalism expert Jay Rosen explains:
“If you go to the WikiLeaks Twitter profile, next to ‘location’ it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. … WikiLeaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system. That’s what so odd about the White House crying, ‘They didn’t even contact us!’
“Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what WikiLeaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new.”
The trouble is, a lot of what we ordinarily think of as journalism ethics (let alone the national interest) has no place in “the logic of the Internet.” Is an off-the-record briefing ever appropriate? Should the media ever withhold information about troop movements? Should a news organization ever decline to name a suspect who hasn’t been charged? Under the “logic of the Internet,” those conventions are going to become positively quaint. Not to mention extinct.
I’m not saying that the release of these documents was wrong. It may turn out to be a great benefit. But it would be nice to know that somebody, somewhere, was weighing the pros and cons, and taking responsibility for the judgment calls. Somebody like — oh, I don’t know — journalists.