Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is WikiLeaks the Napster of freedom of the press?

Is WikiLeaks the future of journalism?

I wrote yesterday about my childhood dream of becoming Woodward and Bernstein and how - even though that dream had "pipe" written all over it - that I still love great journalism.

I think. What is journalism anymore anyway?

If we define ourselves today by rejecting what came before, today's journalism shouldn't look like yesterday's journalism; and if the medium is the message, and the medium has changed, we can at least agree that journalism is definitely not waiting for a local weatherperson to tell us what the weather will be like tomorrow, "after these messages."

But if, as I said in yesterday's post, power is keeping information secret from someone who really wants it, maybe the new journalism is simply finding out what that information is, releasing it, and running for your life.

Enter WikiLeaks

I was personally delighted for the profession of journalism when WikiLeaks came along. How exciting: envelopes and emails delivered to WikiLeaks "editor-in-chief" Julian Assange, who released it and made the U.S. president angry without even working up a sweat. Take that Woodward and Bernstein!

Everyone can agree that there are some things that should be secret: security issues, criminal investigations, employees' privacy. That's not the problem.

The problem is that governments and organizations use "secrecy" in order to exert control, even when it isn't warranted. Take, for example, the boss who tells me that my teaching schedule for next semester is "privileged information." Yeah, imagine if that hot info were to fall into the wrong hands, eh? Scandal, scandal I tell you!

So far, WikiLeaks hasn't released anything that's put anyone in danger, as far as we know. The WikiLeaks revelations fall into two categories: important (U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan) and embarrassing (Putin is a manly man), which made the outrage with which they were met even more ridiculous. That WikiLeaks was dropped by Amazon, Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal for its sins is nothing short of scandalous.

But is it journalism?

Traditional press, new leaks

Strangely, in retrospect, it was the traditional press that gave WikiLeaks so much of its traction at first, including the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel, which worked in conjunction with the site to help make sense of the reams of information it released.

While this is a departure from traditional ideas about who a journalist is or what he or she does, would-be journalists should take heart; at the very least, this points to the ongoing usefulness of journalists, whose job in this case was to condense and bring context to piles of documents where there was none.

What it isn't is "storytelling," which was an outdated idea anyway; as Global Anchor and CreComm grad Dawna Friesen asked in her recent visit to Red River College, "What ever happened to storytelling?"

What she was getting at was the traditional idea that "the storytellers" are the media, and the listeners, readers, and viewers are the poor schlubs at home without a media outlet at their disposal; the Internet exploded that idea by showing that the new media is a two-way dialogue in which we all tell stories to each other. As it turns out, we're all pretty damn good at it.

As we know, the Internet is the TV, radio, newspaper; what we sometimes forget is that it's also a phone.

Leaky journalism

What's unclear is whether - or how - the traditional media will work with WikiLeaks and other online leak sites in the future.

While the relationship with the New York Times made sense for WikiLeaks - more credibility, exposure, and website hits - it seemed pretty obvious that as the outcry reached a fever pitch, the Times became less comfortable with the relationship - the old, gray lady goosed by the silver-haired fox when she wasn't looking.

Nonetheless, I think that WikiLeaks is important. To me, it looks to be the Napster of the information set - the canary in the coalmine that gets shut down only to inspire something even better in its wake. All we need now is for someone to come along and perfect it by showing us what the iTunes of the freedom of the press looks like.

Any takers?

1 comment:

  1. Great pair of posts -- like you, I think this is an exciting time for journalism and I'm jazzed to see what comes next.

    However, I also see Julian Assange as a natural template for the next Bond villain.


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