WikiLeaks XXI: So Much for the Media’s Mandate to Mediate Secrets

Assange ChinaWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-first in the series.

In many respects, Julian Assange rep­re­sents lit­tle more than the lat­est iter­a­tion of the clas­sic “one man’s ter­ror­ist is another man’s free­dom fighter” para­dox. As the lat­est doc­u­ment dump from Wik­iLeaks drips into the pub­lic arena, polar­ized foot sol­diers have mate­ri­al­ized from out of nowhere to do bat­tle in what is being mar­keted as a war for America’s future. On one side, crit­ics of Wik­iLeaks make Assange out to be a car­toon­ish super-vil­lain intent on destroy­ing the United States, while on the other, defend­ers of the orga­ni­za­tion argue that Assange hero­ically rips the mask from the face of power, expos­ing the hor­rors of hegemony.

But focus­ing on the Wik­iLeaks fig­ure­head achieves noth­ing from what I can tell aside from feed­ing Assange’s seem­ingly inex­haustible appetite for atten­tion, and pro­vid­ing a plat­form for con­ser­v­a­tive blowhards like Long Island con­gress­man Peter King to score stu­pidly cheap points in what has evolved into a full-scale Repub­li­can siege on Barack Obama’s White House. And while these debates have suc­ceeded in fuel­ing a polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment that has increas­ingly taken on the feel of a Hol­ly­wood spy thriller, they have simul­ta­ne­ously excused Amer­i­cans from hav­ing to thought­fully con­sider the state of our nation dur­ing a period of mul­ti­ple crises. Instead, we are being encour­aged to retreat behind the bat­tle­ments of grossly over­sim­pli­fied ide­o­log­i­cal stances and told to watch the show.

Beyond the sen­sa­tion­al­ism, how­ever, seri­ous issues about Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life do exist at the heart of the Wik­iLeaks scan­dal. Among them can be found crit­i­cal ques­tions con­cern­ing the role and ethics of secrecy in an open democracy.

On the issue of state secrets, the dri­ving nar­ra­tives of debate can be roughly plot­ted along a spec­trum: the left­most point argues that the leaked cables expose the impro­pri­eties of empire and there­fore all clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion should be brought to light by what­ever means pos­si­ble; the oppo­site point on the right asserts that gov­ern­ment action in the name of the national inter­est should nec­es­sar­ily be hid­den and pro­tected; and then there’s the cen­ter, which shrugs the whole thing off by not­ing that there’s really noth­ing much in the cables — aside from petty gos­sip — that mer­its all this fuss.

All three miss the point. To begin with, it’s sim­ply not the case that the busi­ness of Amer­i­can gov­er­nance neces­si­tates secrecy in order to be effec­tive. The Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act (FoIA) belies this myth. To be sure, our demo­c­ra­tic laws rec­og­nize that cer­tain infor­ma­tion — that which con­sti­tutes a clear and present dan­ger to the most sen­si­tive national inter­ests or threat­ens indi­vid­ual pri­vacy, civil, and human rights, for exam­ple — should not be issued into the pub­lic domain. And for this rea­son, claims that all infor­ma­tion should be entirely free and unreg­u­lated ought to be han­dled with cau­tion, deriv­ing as they do from an out­look that demands the priv­i­leges of trans­parency with­out accept­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ties that attend it.

Still, the argu­ment that gov­ern­ment wrong­do­ing, when shielded by the cloak of secrecy, con­sti­tutes a fla­grant abuse of admin­is­tra­tive power enjoys the pow­er­ful wind of demo­c­ra­tic prin­ci­ples at its back. Not only that, but like Glenn Green­wald, I’d push it a bit fur­ther and argue that the second-hand gos­sip and banal­ity that fills the vast major­ity of leaked cables thus far is pre­cisely at issue in this dis­cus­sion, inso­far as it also rep­re­sents the mis­use of gov­ern­ment secrecy pow­ers. If the var­i­ous cat­e­gories of con­fi­den­tial­ity that the State Depart­ment uses to clas­sify dif­fer­ent lev­els of sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion are to have any mean­ing at all, they must be rig­or­ously respected and adhered to. Oth­er­wise, civil ser­vants risk under­min­ing good-faith claims — whether right or wrong — to gov­ern­ment secrecy in truly extra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions that may war­rant it. The WikiLeaks cables demon­strate that they do not, and that even harm­less infor­ma­tion is highly restricted, which is deeply troubling.

Beyond these con­sid­er­a­tions, how­ever, the Wik­iLeaks phe­nom­e­non has also defrocked the media of its claim to guardian­ship over the pub­lic good. The argu­ment can be made — and it should — that tools such as the FoIA offer insti­tu­tional chan­nels through which the pub­lic can respon­si­bly access exactly the sorts of doc­u­ments Wik­iLeaks has brought to light. The trou­ble with this argu­ment, of course, is that the media — which has tra­di­tion­ally pos­sessed the resources to max­i­mize these tools to great­est profit — has shirked its respon­si­bil­ity as a mech­a­nism by which the pub­lic can hold its gov­ern­ment to account. As the media ter­rain itself rapidly shifts, and eco­nomic incen­tives fol­low, fewer and fewer resources are devoted to the deep inves­tiga­tive report­ing that has helped police gov­ern­ment behav­ior in the past but — with the excep­tion of a notable few hold­outs — has largely van­ished today.

In many respects, the dis­ap­pear­ance of inves­tiga­tive report­ing is as much a prod­uct of what jour­nal­ists them­selves see as their pub­lic func­tion as it is of tech­no­log­i­cal shifts or the public’s wan­ing inter­est in any morsel of infor­ma­tion that exceeds 140 char­ac­ters. The new model of polit­i­cal report­ing has come to priv­i­lege the arm­chair over shoe leather as its pri­mary accou­trement, as exem­pli­fied by the atti­tude of media elites such as The New Repub­lic’s Jonathan Chait, who asks “What’s so bad about sit­ting around?” To be cer­tain, Chait is right that “You can learn a lot sit­ting behind a desk, min­ing the papers for inter­est­ing fac­tual nuggets, read­ing polit­i­cal com­men­tary from every per­spec­tive, por­ing through books and reports, and using the Nexis data­base to com­pile enor­mous stacks of news­pa­per stories.”

But Chait’s larger point is dis­cour­ag­ing. “Part of the prob­lem is that jour­nal­ism ter­mi­nol­ogy glo­ri­fies “shoe-leather report­ing,” whereby you pound the pave­ment so often you wear out the soles of your shoes. I’m not say­ing that every news story could be reported with­out leav­ing one’s desk. (Bern­stein: “Wood­ward, look! I found a clip from 1971 in which Pres­i­dent Nixon tells the Omaha World-Herald he plans to order his goons to break into Demo­c­ra­tic head­quar­ters in the Water­gate Hotel!” Wood­ward: “I’ll can­cel that meet­ing with Deep Throat.”) I’m sim­ply say­ing that, some­times, lazi­ness can be the bet­ter part of valor.”

I’m not so sure, sim­ply because it seems to have devel­oped into a news­room pathol­ogy. Iron­i­cally, the Wik­iLeaks doc­u­ments have done almost noth­ing to shock reporters back into action, but instead have rein­forced their very reluc­tance to leave the news desk, chained as they are to their chairs in expec­ta­tion of the next batch of cables. Indeed, most of the “report­ing” on the Wik­ileaks doc­u­ment dump has come to con­sti­tute a sort of Cliff’s Notes guide to the embassy cables rather than seri­ous reportage or analysis.

And this is pre­cisely it. The lion’s share of dis­dain swirling around the Wik­iLeaks scan­dal has been directed at the gov­ern­ment and Julian Assange. But amidst this comic book-worthy show­down, the media has largely given itself a free pass, which in many respects strikes me as the crux of the mat­ter. If pow­er­ful media out­lets were doing a bet­ter job at mon­i­tor­ing gov­ern­ment action at home and abroad, there would likely be no Wik­iLeaks (or at least not the Wik­iLeaks that we’ve grown to love/hate), nor would gov­ern­ments enjoy carte blanche to get in the lazy habit of clas­si­fy­ing every­thing they do as con­fi­den­tial or using the shield of “state secrets” to obscure gov­ern­ment malfeasance.

So it makes sense that as the unpar­al­leled tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can inves­tiga­tive report­ing gives way to the relent­less waves of new infor­ma­tion pour­ing into the Amer­i­can psy­che with each new tweet, Wik­iLeaks has appeared on the scene to fill the gap. Whether Assange and com­pany see them­selves as heirs to this tra­di­tion is doubt­ful. As the Van­cou­ver Sun, in an excel­lent analy­sis of blog­ger Aaron Bady’s work on Assange’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, notes, the Wik­iLeaks leader “is not try­ing to pro­duce a jour­nal­is­tic scan­dal which will then pro­voke red-faced gov­ern­ment reforms,” but instead is seek­ing to dis­rupt modes by which gov­ern­ment secrecy oper­ates in order to change the very nature of gov­er­nance itself.

Still, it seems as if Wik­iLeaks itself has come under the power of a strangely market-driven demand for demo­c­ra­tic trans­parency in the absence of healthy media and in the face of increas­ingly secret gov­ern­ment behav­ior. Despite the hacker ethic sup­pos­edly dri­ving the Wik­iLeaks phe­nom­e­non — that all infor­ma­tion must flow unfet­tered into the pub­lic domain — there is evi­dence that Wik­iLeak­ers are mak­ing efforts at vet­ting the flow of infor­ma­tion to meet clas­sic report­ing stan­dards that avoid vio­lat­ing the harm prin­ci­ple out­lined in the FoIA. Indeed, as a recent piece in the Washington Post points out,

Well before publishing the cables, [Assange] wrote a letter to the U.S. government, delivered to our ambassador in London, inviting suggestions for redactions. The State Department refused. Assange then wrote another letter to State, reiterating that “WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States.”

In that second letter, Assange stated that the department’s refusal to discuss redactions “leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful.” He then indicated that WikiLeaks was undertaking redactions on its own.

This sort of thing strikes me as both encour­ag­ing and to be encouraged.

And it’s for this rea­son that the government’s ham-fisted response to the Wik­iLeaks phe­nom­e­non is so shock­ing. Of course the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment is lick­ing its wounds at hav­ing had its sense of enti­tle­ment to secrecy stripped away with each new batch of cables leaked to the pub­lic. I don’t find this sur­pris­ing in the least. The aston­ish­ing part to my mind is that the gov­ern­ment, con­fronted with an Amer­i­can pub­lic that has grown increas­ingly dis­trust­ful of it by the year, con­tin­ues to adhere to the very prac­tices that fur­ther pull the car­pet of pos­i­tive pub­lic opin­ion out from beneath its own feet. In an age in which polit­i­cal power clearly resides with those seek­ing to pull the cur­tains away to dis­pel the gloom of secrecy, polit­i­cal elites in the United States would pre­fer to keep us all in the dark.