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Wikileaks Peaks

July 27, 2010

The last month or so has been a momentous one in the history of journalism. Collateral Murder, Top Secret America, the War Logs.

Game changing? Quite a few journalists have claimed that these leaks don’t really contain much evidence damning the administration or the current tide and direction of politics. The Top Secret America story, published by the Washington Post, contains a lot of data that was already available. The 92,000 Afghanistan documents leaked yesterday come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the actual statements of the officials that have been conducting the war since December 2009. The conclusion these cynical commentators draw is that these leaks don’t really mean much for how we ought to conduct the war in Afghanistan or The War on Terror™:

Journalism, the old saw has it, is the first draft of history. The WikiLeaks documents amount to the first notes of a journalistic story, and incomplete notes at that. The war in Afghanistan may or may not be a tragedy, a failure, and a mistake. In any case, you’re more likely to learn that from reports and reporters, not from these random, raw files.

As Fred Phelps notes, these leaks are the raw data, the notes of the investigation; they’re not the final analysis, nor do they purport to be. Even though Julian Assange is an unabashed world-historical individual who “enjoy[s] crushing bastards” (and you have to love him for that), he never claims that the content of any of these documents is what motivates him; if that was his motivation, he would be a giant hypocrite because he would be exercising control and discretion over what is and what is not worthy of exposure, which is the act of censorship he’s dedicated himself to fight against.

What is so monumental about Wikileaks in general and these specific releases is twofold: (1) government transparency is becoming the norm, rather than the exception, and (2) they are the investigation, allowing other armchair journalists (like Fred Phelps or myself for that matter) to do the analytical reporting later, from the comfort of the blogosphere. When everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off worrying what will happen to investigative journalism in an age where journalists cannot get paid to publish content, Wikileaks is the white horse solution that no professional journalist dares acknowledge because it means they still have to figure out how to get paid to provide something more.

To take the latter point first, freely available investigative data is especially and integrally connected to the transparency because divorcing the investigation from the analysis tends to mitigate the rose-tinting and recasting of facts to appeal to the sources that provide the raw data. It provides each player in the marketplace of ideas with a more or less equal starting point (note how the Afghanistan leaks went to three major publications: the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel), from which they could superimpose their own journalistic analyses, editorials and conclusions. Wikileaks isn’t commenting, it’s just publishing, and letting the free market of ideas take care of the rest. It’s market-making, not king-making. And that point is vitally necessary to ensuring the success of government transparency; if we just had the nostalgic, old system where government officials regularly leaked information to select journalists who cultivated sources, that transparency would be subject to massive manipulation. See, e.g., everything Dick Cheney has ever done.

However, some of the mainstream media have upturned their noses to these new sources that are freely available to “unaccountable, anonymous” bloggers/citizen-journalists. The blogosphere’s own white knight, Glenn Greenwald, has pointedly and painstakingly shown that accountability and transparency are not at all the norm in the mainstream media whenever a controversial issue is up for discussion.

Click here to see but one of countless examples of how much CNN itself hates cowardly anonymity. The catty, harmful insults in the 2004 campaign that John Kerry “looks French” and John Edwards is the “Breck Girl” were introduced to the public by The New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney, quoting an anonymous Bush aide. And, of course, pick any random Politico article from any day which shapes cable news coverage and Washington chatter for the week, and it’s certain to be based in this formula: one anonymous person said X and another anonymous person denied this.

At least anonymous bloggers are very clear and truthful about what they are: often citizens whose jobs or other interests prevent them from attaching their names to their political expression. By stark contrast, all of these establishment media outlets perpetrate a total fraud on the public by pretending that they have standards for when anonymity will be used even though, as these examples from the last 24 hours alone prove, they routinely violate those alleged standards for absolutely no reason.

And in terms of merely promoting government transparency, the relevant maxim is “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Turning on the lights, as Wikileaks has put it, has dramatic second-order effects by merely threatening eventual exposure to misdeeds. You know that when a NewsCorp company questions whether that transparency “threatens” government operations, you’re doing something right.

The truth is out there; the question is whether the relevant facts can be put into the hands of the people who can shine their own little flashlights on it. By providing facts without regard for their eventual effect, which so many people have decried in the typically fascist way of worrying about the ability of the government to carry out its mission, Wikileaks is vitally important to preventing the bottlenecking of news provision that has allowed the current ecosystem of carefully controlled, manipulated, and marginal reporting to flourish and support those in power. It mitigates the effects of bias and slant by giving anyone equal access to the evidence they’d need to contradict those otherwise imperciptibly-influenced claims. In the coming days, as this debate over Wikileaks grows, just think about what authority figures are asking for when they call for Wikileaks’ censorship; they’re asking for the truth to be suppressed so that their authority remains unchallenged. In that sense, nothing has changed.

UPDATE: ProPublica (another great font for open source reporting) has a reading list to put the WikiLeaks ‘War Logs’ in context as well as an interview with the journalist that published the leaked Pentagon Papers on the significance of the War Logs. Both are worth a read if you’re interested in the substance and contents of the documents.


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