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How WikiLeaks Affects Journalism

Interviewee: C. W. Anderson, Knight Media Policy Fellow, New America Foundation
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
December 29, 2010

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WikiLeaks' release of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents, and its collaboration with traditional news media like the New York Times for their publication have raised questions about the future of journalism. At the same time, †the U.S. State Department's efforts to press for the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange raises questions about the nature of journalism. †The WikiLeaks story affects both how journalists do their jobs and the bigger question of what their mission is, says C. W. Anderson, a media policy fellow at the New America Foundation and assistant professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island (CUNY). Anderson says journalists now have to "come to grips with" other online communities. Still, he argues, while WikiLeaks has posed new challenges for the traditional news media, it has also reinforced the latter's power.

What impact does WikiLeaks have on journalism?

You can divide the impact WikiLeaks is having into two general categories: the practical day-to- day aspects of journalism, and the way journalists do their job; and on the bigger, more philosophical, issues related to journalism.

The idea that a source-- and in this case I'm referring to Julian Assange as a source, because that's how news organizations see him--is working with multiple news outlets simultaneously; the fact that he is sort of able to withdraw cooperation with particular news outlets if they do something that he doesn't like, is very new; [and] that affects how journalism gets produced.

Another daily impact is that dynamics between journalists and government officials, in terms of journalists' ability to access information, are going to change pretty dramatically. There are going to be a lot of crackdowns in the government in an attempt to rein in officials and their ability to work with the press. You are going to have people with the State Department, people with the Defense Department, really attempting to rethink the policies they have with regards to interacting with journalists. That won't necessarily work. I don't think it's necessarily the right way to go.

What about the effects on the bigger issues related to journalism?

Journalists getting handed a set of 250,000 primary source documents is unheard of. [Editor's Note: WikiLeaks has released fewer than 2,000 of the 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables it vowed to publish.] It's profoundly new and it's a profoundly new way that our entire society and our entire culture are trying to grapple with information. You're seeing this explosion of massive amounts of primary source data in all sorts of domains, in research, in science, on the Internet. And it's impacting journalism as well. Journalists have to try to understand: What does it mean to get 250,000 primary source cables? How do we analyze those? How does our idea of what important information is--how does that change? What does it mean to get handed a database rather than a document? Journalists have certain ways of thinking about what information's important. Their ability to come to terms with what a database is, is a new kind of profound challenge for journalism.

I would think that it would be a treasure trove. For instance, for journalists covering the Afghanistan war for the last nine years to be handed over these documents, military or diplomatic, would be a boon.

To have a functional legal system that privileges the kind of transparency and information we need as a democracy, you have to make the argument that WikiLeaks is journalism and Julian Assange is a journalist.

Journalism has always been primarily concerned with what is new. What is new is not necessarily what is important, and sometimes journalism's focus on what's new isn't always good. It can kind of miss the big picture, and it can miss the things that are really going on in society. So, this is good for journalists that they are getting this information, but they're going to have to kind of learn how to deal with it and come up with new routines and new practices for figuring out what their actual mission is.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley recently remarked that the United States does not consider WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be a "journalist" or a "whistleblower," but a "political actor." This has fueled the debate on whether WikiLeaks is a media organization and Julian Assange a journalist. What is your view?

WikiLeaks, for the purposes of law and public policy, is a journalistic organization. In order to have a functional legal system that privileges the kind of transparency and information we need as a democracy, you have to make the argument that WikiLeaks is journalism and Julian Assange is a journalist.

Now, of course, his status is highly politicized. It certainly does the State Department much good to want to make the best argument that they can that he is not a journalist. At the same time, it's smart for Julian Assange to try to say that he is. That helps him in a number of ways. But the fact that it helps him doesn't mean that it is, when push comes to shove, not true. If we were to say that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are not journalistic [entities], we would end up in a situation where many other news entities would not be journalistic organizations either, based on what they do. It's very hard to draw that line that excludes WikiLeaks and includes the New York Times.

Some of Columbia University's journalism school faculty wrote a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, arguing "in publishing diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks is engaging in journalistic activity protected by the First Amendment, and that as a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked materials in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy then the leaks themselves." Do you share this concern?

Journalists, the way the Internet is developing, are going to have to learn to not only live with other online communities like geeks, like hackers, but also understand these communities in a complicated and non-simplistic way.

I do. I was a graduate student at Columbia, and as full disclosure several of the signatories of that letter were on my doctoral dissertation committee. I would agree with the basic argument that historically, the overreaction to government leaks has been worse than the leaks themselves. You can go all the way back to World War I, people that nowadays we would consider American heroes were imprisoned in the middle of a governmental overreaction. That's certainly capable of happening today. Again, what would probably happen is that a good number of media organizations that we like very much: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and even TV organizations -- I'll even include Fox news in this -- would see restrictions that would be very damaging to them in their ability to do their jobs in the long run.

You have written: "To understand the world of Wikileaks and what it means to journalism, you have to understand the world of geeks, of hackers, and of techno-dissidents." Could you elaborate?

Hackers and geeks have views on information. They have views on transparency that are not necessarily identical to those we've traditionally considered to be the views of journalists. There is a strong current in the world of geeks and in the world of hackers that ultimate information transparency is a good thing. I do not think that that is necessarily representative of the viewpoints of all journalists. So even though [Assange] may be acting as a journalist, his core beliefs are not necessarily the same as other journalists we're more traditionally used to.

The way the Internet is developing, journalists are going to have to learn to not only live with other online communities like geeks, like hackers, but also understand these communities in a complicated and non-simplistic way. They're going to have to understand that not everyone online is them. That not everyone online is a traditional government source, not everyone online is a traditional business community source.

What does WikiLeaks' collaboration† with traditional news media tell you about the future of journalism?

The fact that Assange and WikiLeaks did collaborate with traditional news organizations over these last several months actually speaks very highly and speaks well of the continued power of traditional news media.

The news power structure has changed less than some people would say. The fact that Assange and WikiLeaks did collaborate with traditional news organizations over these last several months actually speaks very highly and speaks well of the continued power of traditional news media.

Assange himself has said this. He sort of said "the reason why we call ourselves WikiLeaks is that we thought these documents would be posted and then commented upon by people on the Internet. And as it turned out, we published this stuff and nobody noticed. And then we realized that our mission was not just to put information out there; our goal was to put information out there that would have an impact. And we realized that the way we had to do that was to make information scarce rather than everywhere, that that would paradoxically get us more attention."

So that speaks very highly to the continued power of the traditional media. That said, the fact that a source can now kind of play these news organizations off each other-- that's a new dynamic that does change the power structure a little bit.

Does the WikiLeaks story prompt some sort of a rethink as to what kind of information journalists should release or what they should withhold?

It could prompt such a rethink. Bill Keller [executive editor] at the New York Times, just to name one person I've seen talk about this, has said: "Look, this is just like everything else we've always done. This is not all that new, this is not all that big a deal." So if there is a rethink going on, it's happening behind closed doors.

I do think there's a rethink going on, but it's going on in Bill Keller's office, and he's not going to tell us about it. But it's the job of the great journalism schools of the world to bring these conversations into the public.

Some commentators have suggested that the WikiLeaks story is the first real battleground between the political establishment and the open web. Do you agree?

That's a bit hyperbolic. With the Internet, we tend to like to believe that everything is new all the time. The difference with WikiLeaks, as opposed to earlier battles between the open web and government, is a difference in degree. The amount of data is greater, the collaboration with news organizations is new, the impact of that data is greater, so the real question is when does a difference in degree equal a difference in kind. And have we reached the moment where difference in degree has now tipped over into a difference in kind?

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