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Sep 01 2010

WikiLeaks challenges the Watergate model of journalism

The Watergate model of journalism that I wrote about yesterday is one that depends upon high-level anonymous sources to provide information. But here the person providing the information usually has an agenda other than just truth or public interest, and is often seeking to drive the discussion in directions that serve either political or personal ends. There is also almost always a quid pro quo involved. The journalist provides anonymity and lack of accountability and makes the source look good in exchange for information. The problem is that there is no way for the public to judge for themselves the value of the information and has to trust the journalist and the anonymous source.

Unfortunately the glamorization of the Watergate story, fed by books and films starring major Hollywood actors, made the Woodward and Bernstein method the model for aspiring journalists. This has led to the current awful state in which journalists for major news media essentially spend their lives sucking up to those in power, cultivating high-level sources, hoping for a few crumbs to be tossed their way that they can breathlessly report as ‘scoops’, when what it mostly consists of is spin or gossip. We now have an epidemic of reporting that cites unnamed sources, leaving the reader at the mercy of the reporter’s judgment as to the source’s veracity and motives. The mainstream media has come to see itself as the gatekeeper and filterer of news. This reached its apex (or more appropriately the nadir) with the practice of embedding journalists with US troops during wars, a process that trades access to the front lines and to senior military personnel in return for muted or even fawning coverage and a sanitization of the horrors of war.

Reporters and their sources have taken this cozy mutual back-scratching relationship so much for granted that they react with shock when someone like Michael Hastings ‘breaks the rules’ and reports for Rolling Stone magazine what he actually sees and hears about what is going on in Afghanistan. Lara Logan of CBS News delivered a vitriolic attack on Hastings, implying that he was not worthy to even shine the shoes of her hero General Stanley McChrystal, and John Burns of the New York Times said that Hastings has ‘spoiled ‘ things for other reporters because they had a sort of understanding with the people they cover that they would not report everything they saw or heard. As Burns said, “I think it’s very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations.” See also this article on media response to Hastings

These reactions reveal how immersed these reporters have become in this corrupt practice, that they see it as the new normal.

The emergence of WikiLeaks has given new hope that the current corrupt and sycophantic Watergate model of journalism can be changed and the Pentagon Papers model resurrected. WikiLeaks has been around for a while but it was the release of the Collateral Murder video that showed Iraqi people being gleefully gunned down by helicopter gunships that catapulted them into US consciousness. The subsequent release on Sunday, July 25, 2010 of tens of thousands of internal government documents about the actual state of the war in Afghanistan reveals, as the Guardian newspaper says, “civilian killings by coalition forces, secret efforts to eliminate Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, and discuss the involvement of Iran and Pakistan in supporting insurgents.”

This release has further enhanced WikiLeaks reputation as a major player in international media. As WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange says: “We publish raw materials without analysis or interpretation. Then it’s up to journalists, researchers, and the public to review them”, which is exactly the Pentagon Papers model. Whatever the motives of the people doing the leaking, releasing official documents allows everyone to judge for themselves what the government is doing in their name. When you have official documents, the identity of the person who leaked them is unimportant.

(You can see the War Diary on the WikiLeaks website. The London Guardian was one the three newspapers that were given prior access to the documents and its own analysis and follow up stories can be seen here and here. Justin Raimondo also provides further analysis.)

All this has cemented the view that Julian Assange and WikLeaks have become the go-to conduit for those mid- and low-level government employees who for whatever reason think that their government is misbehaving, because the potential recipients of the bygone era like the New York Times and the Washington Post are now seen as too solicitous of protecting government interests. If you release important information to those and other mainstream media, there is a good chance that they will share it first with the government and even suppress it if the government demands it. WikiLeaks will not.

Next: WikiLeaks goes even beyond the Pentagon Papers model.

POST SCRIPT: A new version of Time magazine aimed at grownups

The Onion News Network nails it again.

TIME Announces New Version Of Magazine Aimed At Adults

2 comments

  1. 1
    Ken Gibert

    Interesting comments. As someone who has represented people fired for voicing their opinions, however, I can see the reason for protecting the confidentiality of informants sometimes. The First Amendment protections for whistle blowers sometimes seem so arcane as to amount to no real protection.

  2. 2
    Rexx Hogan

    I probably shouldn’t admit this…but I hadn’t even heard of WikiLieaks! or made note of it. I’ll see if I can look them up. You make great points about the development of journalism.

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