Is Wikileaks a Purveyor of News or Chaos?

Posted on January 18, 2011

Surrounded by cries of “protected under free speech” and “this is journalism,” Wikileaks sails on and moves fearlessly against economic and political targets that some regard as virtual fortresses of power and influence. But where is Wikileaks’ sense of responsibility; of ethics?  Where is the line?

The Society of Professional Journalist Code of Ethics is subscribed to voluntarily by journalists.  In most matters Wikileaks has followed the guidelines but in some areas they are suspect.

Although the code encourages the uncovering of unethical behavior on the part of journalists and the media, where is it written that threats may be made against a news outlet?

WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange has a message to Fox News—“Be afraid of him.” He has revealed that he has “insurance files” on Rupert Murdoch and his all-encompassing global empire. Assange reported that these damaging files would be released if something were to ever happen to him or his organization. In an interview with John Pilger of the New Statesman magazine last week, Assange discussed a wide range of issues from Fox News to his legal future. “If something happens to me or to WikiLeaks, ‘insurance’ files will be released,” Assange told Pilger. He said that the contents of the files “speak more of the same truth to power…there are 504 US embassy cables on one broadcasting organization and there are cables on Murdoch and News Corp.” []

On the other hand, if he had credible proof that Murdoch is a threat to his safety, he owes it to us to reveal what he knows about it. He is playing on our emotions and he needs to counter that with facts.

Then there is the case of revealing the bank account information for political and entertainment figures of note that maintain off-shore accounts. This will come soon.  This may seem the release of personal information of private people at first blush but in reality these are public figures.  Wikileaks has fallen within the guidelines of ethics.

To undercut Wikileaks would involve more than hacking their site as cyber criminals have done repeatedly.  It would mean checking their sources for accuracy – going back over what they should have reviewed before publication. Or it would involve attacks on the integrity of key members of the enterprise, the rape charges filed against Assange being a case in point.

Assange has also warned his colleagues that what happens to him could happen to them:

Assange also warned that any attempts by the U.S. government to prosecute him should worry the mainstream media in America. “I think what’s emerging in the mainstream media is the awareness that if I can be indicted, other journalists can, too,” he said. “Even the New York Times is worried []

Unlike the New York Times, Wikileaks is entirely devoted to investigative journalism.  Yet it is upending journalism.  Columbia has a formidable school of journalism. Here is their take found here:

What WikiLeaks Means: a CJR Podcast

WikiLeaks has been around for a while, but this year—beginning in April, when the site posted a video showing the death of two Reuters employees in a U.S. helicopter attack, through November, when mainline journalism organizations began releasing stories based on a trove of some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, stories that are still rolling out—the world took notice. Is WikiLeaks a boon to transparency and freedom of information or a threat to U.S. interests? Is it a journalistic entity or something altogether new?

In a new Columbia Journalism Review podcast, CJR’s Joel Meares talks with deputy editor Clint Hendler about how WikiLeaks is upending American assumptions about journalism and free speech.

Listen to the episode below, and be sure to check out the CJR podcast homepage on iTunes, where you can listen and subscribe for free. The first two episodes are up now, with many more to come.

What Wikileaks is will be debated for some time.  It is a new “animal” and as such needs examination before classification and ranking within the journalism pantheon of practitioners.

Meanwhile, it appears that the Wikileaks information sources and the information are endless.  They undertake some of the most important stories of the day.  They are in fact upending journalism in many ways and creating a certain amount of international “chaos.”  But in the final analysis,  Wikileaks is just a small part of the delivery of news.  The news can happen in small places and in a single picture.  Yet the stories Wikileaks eschews teach us about ourselves and each other and these they  cannot touch.