The release by WikiLeaks of the ‘semi-classified’ government communications presents a slight wrinkle in the underpants of any die-hard Freedom of Press advocate. Normally The Poet’s Eye would view the leak from a journalist’s standpoint and cheer the scoop. Transparency is good. All government documents should be available for public examination. Anything typed on a government computer in the course of doing official business in the name of the people belongs to the people. Given that and the indestructible nature of information in our computer world, it is surprising that people aren’t more careful about what they say.
The Poet’s Eye hasn’t examined all quarter million of the leaked documents, but they appear to be diplomatic and procedural small-talk between bureaucrats, no stunning revelations but just some idle name calling more fitting for the Enquirer than the Economist. The whole adventure begins to look like a caper movie with the young computer whiz anti-hero, a low-level clerk in the Defense Dept. who dumps a ton of unprotected information to his Lady GaGa CD and spirits it out of the Pentagon to be published with great fanfare on the internet. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, these documents don’t reveal any systemic sickness or deceit or conspiracy, no big lie. They just depict the usual sausage-making that goes on backstage in any show. The cause for their release wasn’t to expose any particular graft or malfeasance, the reason seemed to be more or less, “Because we can.” The incident did demonstrate the porosity of our government’s document security systems.
The incident was troubling not so much because of the value of any particular secrets revealed but due to the means, method and magnitude of the revelation itself. These reams of State Dept. cables were stolen not by the Mossad or the Chinese Cyber-Spy Ninjas but by an army private with the same low-level security clearance as thousands of worker-bees in our government and military. Ellsberg needed several weeks with a copy machine to make away with the Pentagon Papers. He would have loved today’s technology which made the massive State Dept. information dump possible in a matter of minutes and also allowed such a large amount of information to be distributed to the public unfiltered. Suddenly the discreet and whispered world of diplomacy finds itself with a Facebook account and no clue about the privacy settings. It’s a recipe for embarrassment.
The existence of a Right of Privacy has long been a matter of dispute. We don’t find it in the Bill of Rights where the rest of our guaranteed rights are enumerated. Modern technology doesn’t believe in privacy at all and in its usual de facto way has defined and limited our expectation of privacy. Computers know all and expose it. Even the telephones have eyes. Facebook allows every citizen to build his own dossier. The lines are blurred when it comes to the limits of a citizen’s privacy but it is clear and certain that the government has No Right of Privacy. From the journalistic point of view there hasn’t been any treasonous violation of the law associated with the leak or publication of the State Dept. cables. From the point of view of an embarrassed government we might see some attempts to find a goat to blame.
Secretary of State Clinton was quick to point out reasonably that this leak was not the same type of creature as the Ellsberg leak of the Pentagon Papers. Patriotism or organizational whistle-blowing didn’t appear to be the motive for the leak. The Poet’s Eye doesn’t see an obvious motive but wealth and notoriety. It may be no more than a disgruntled gay soldier seeking payback for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It’s anybody’s guess. But Secretary Clinton is right to assert that the impromptu espionage was not an act to be admired like Ellsberg’s which helped to end a war, but a large piece of mischief with no specific objective and little positive result. What positive results am I imagining? Perhaps the reality check that it might inspire about confidentiality in the new electronic Age of Transparency would be helpful.
Which brings us to the subject of Julian Assange. The name alone conjures up images of an Ian Flemming arch-villain. The WikiLeaks founder is being characterized as everything from a trail-blazing journalist to a shameless opportunist to an international sex criminal. Justin Timberlake is already trying to learn his accent for the inevitable biopic. Mr. Assange hit the top of Interpol’s Most Wanted list. He plays rough with Swedish party girls. There are rumors that international bankers have a hit out on him to prevent him from exposing their dirty secrets too. He has become the classic man of mystery and romance. The Poet’s Eye squints that this is the kind of tabloid drama that it takes to point up the serious questions that the internet revolution has posed concerning the Free Press. Regardless of whether you see Assange as a foreign spy or an international whistle-blower, he has used the worldwide platform of the internet to great effect and is physically moving from jurisdiction to jurisdiction to avoid a series of pending and possible prosecutions. These are game-changing tactics. I’m sure that any number of governments would love to smash his printing presses but they aren’t quite sure where they are and how to get their hot little hands on them legally. They only exist in cyberspace.
Is a Blogger a Real Journalist?
The question dangles, Is a blogger a real journalist? Many questions dangle because their likely answers are, ‘it depends.’ What kind of bona fides are required to be a real journalist? Does someone else need to be paying you to do it before you are legit? Is it simply a matter of employment? Does the NYT have more Freedom of Press than the Huffington Post or Drudge or The Poet’s Eye? When an independent upstart like WikiLeaks publishes inconvenient truths, should they be held to a different legal standard than The Washington Post or Michael Moore?
The answer is, No. What legitimizes journalism is the same now as it was before the internet revolution, veracity and credibility. When the ears hear the truth, the heart respects the mouth that speaks it. Journalists get their cred the same way as anybody on the steet, by being real and telling the truth to the best of their understanding and ability. And it happens over time. If someone tells you the truth over and over again, you tend to believe what they say even if you can’t verify it for yourself. It is much easier to lose credibility as a journalist than to gain it. As soon as a journalist is caught even once in deliberate deceit or mis-reporting of facts he might as well start looking for a proofreading job. Facts can be checked and who would bother listening to a liar? Opinion and analysis are not so easy to verify but we come to trust commentators, opinion writers, pundits, analysts and bloggers for the same reasons we trust any news vioice, because what we hear from them consistently makes sense to us (or at least agrees with our world-view.)
The Poet’s Eye understands Freedom of the Press as a right that is enjoyed by anyone who can hold a pen. Most of us were happy with this notion when realistically you had to be a member of the propertied class in order to own a printing press, much less the distribution capabilities of a newspaper. You had to be part of the establishment in order to play the game at all. But that was yesterday. Now literally anyone who can hold a pen and afford an internet connection can publish to the world. We can expect a grand cacaphony but inevitably the cream rises to the top… along with the scum. Again, credibility and trust will choose the voices to which we will listen.
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” — Jefferson