Wikileaks and the Digitally Networked Free Press
Yochai Benkler has just published a fascinating study of Wikileaks and what he calls the free and irresponsible press. The study’s focus is on WikiLeaks, the Internet-based ‘whistle blower’ site, but it is more than that; it is, as Benkler states, a battle for the soul of the networked fourth estate.
Benkler makes several key arguments. The most important in my view is that WikiLeaks is part and parcel of a broader set of changes that, once the dust settles, will likely stabilize around a network media ecology consisting of (1) a core group of strong traditional media companies; (2) numerous small commercial media (e.g. Huffington Post, the Tyee, Drudge Report, Global Journalist, etc.), (3) non-profit media (e.g. WikiLeaks, Wikipedia), (4) partisan media outlets (e.g. Independent News Network, Rabble.ca, Daily Kos, TalkingPointsMemo) and (5) hybrids that mix features of all the others.
Second, he argues that far from the Internet aggravating the ‘crisis in journalism’, it may in fact be improving the quality of the new media and journalism overall. According to Benkler, the current turmoil amongst traditional news outlets is the result of so many self-inflicted wounds that have festered for decades. The rise of the internet and the changing technological and economic basis of the media magnifies these problems, but it is not responsible for them.
Instead of bemoaning the impending ‘death of journalism’, Benkler strikes a cautiously optimistic note. The blogosphere and Internet are undoubtedly bastions of vanity, personal opinions masquerading as fact, and where bellicose politics trumps civility. Crucially, they are also sites where new forms of journalism, new approaches to knowledge production and new kinds to creative expression are emerging that have the potential to make a mighty contribution to journalism and democracy.
Wikileaks is the poster-child for some of the potentials of non-profit, ‘crowd-sourced’, investigative journalism. More broadly, the poster child of ‘crowd-sourced’ knowledge is Wikipedia, a socially produced online encyclopedia that now ranks among he top 7 or 8 most visited websites in the world — except in countries such as China, where it is hard to access. Wikipedia’s credibility ranks on par with venerable entities such as the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Benkler is keen to show that unless we recognize that relatively new actors are making valuable contributions to the networked media environment, we will end up with impoverished journalism and weakened democracies. A key step in this process of recognition is to understand that outlets such as WikiLeaks are fundamentally ‘journalistic’ in function.
Third, to the question of whether or not WikiLeaks is a ‘news organization’ and its key players, most notably Julian Assange, journalists, Benkler offers an emphatic yes.
The first proof of this is that, since it began in 2006, WikiLeaks has received several awards recognizing it as such from Amnesty International and the British magazine, Index on Censorship. More recently, it has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Second, it is a global news agenda setter. In 2010, it did this not just once, but four times:
(1) the release of the ‘collateral murder’ video in April;
(2) the release of the Afghan and (3) Iraq war logs in July and October, respectively, and
(4) the release of 1,900 diplomatic cables beginning November 26th.
This is no small feat. It would seem to indicate that Wikileaks is not marginal to journalism, but central to it.
Third, Wikileaks has worked hand-in-glove with the most prestigious news outlets in the world: The Guardian, the New York Times, Der Speigel, Le Monde and El Pais. Rather than simply dumping all of the 250,000 ‘embassy cables’ that it claims to hold into the public domain, only 1,900 or so have been released since late November. Its materials, at least after the problematic “collateral murder” video, have been selected, edited and presented according to professional news values.
Fourth, working with these news organizations has maximized attention for these stories. It has also allowed these news organizations to bolster their already strong positions in local and ‘global news markets’. The cables were leaked pretty much simultaneously by Wikileaks, The Guardian, the New York Times, Der Speigel, Le Monde and El Pais. The benefits of cooperation cut both ways.
Fifth, this is better than the ‘old days’. For example, in the WikiLeaks’ case, the NYT consulted with the Obama Administration before releasing the ‘war logs’ or the ‘diplomatic cables’. Such deference might seem odd, unduly deferential perhaps, and it is. It was better than sitting on the material for a year, however, as the NYT did in 2005 at the behest of the Bush Administration in the context of the NSA/AT&T unauthorized wiretap case (see mea culpa by NYT public editor Byron Calame, Jan. 1, 2006). As a non-profit source, and without the need to stay in good standing within the circles of political, military and corporate power, Wikileaks does not have to assume such a deferential stature.
Awards, agenda-setting, cooperation with prestigious news organizations, mutually beneficial arrangements, and no small degree of reliance on long-standing professional practices and some deference to state power, however, are still not enough, it seems, to prove WikiLeaks’ journalistic credentials. Despite all this and the careful, indeed, responsible approach it took (i.e. as a free and responsible press), WikiLeaks’ actions led to paroxysms in some quarters.
Calls for execution, treason charges, and so forth would normally seem to fall beyond the pale of ‘normal democracy’, but in the WikiLeaks’ case they have heavily framed the discussion. The coverage of the press has been, at best, poor when it comes to specifics about the case. Two-thirds of news reports have mistakenly implied that WikiLeaks simply dumped everything it had into the public domain. Several members of the U.S. Congress called for Assange to be tried for treason; a common tactic was to label him a terrorist. This is not a political culture in which a free press flourishes.
Two Republican presidential candidates, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, as well as some hard-line conservatives in Canada (e.g. Tom Flanagan and Ezra Levant) called for Assange’s execution. All of these actions were not just over-the-top; they are a threat to a free press and to democracy. Just how over top they are is indicated by the measured response of the U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. As Gates put it, “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest” (quoted in Benkler, p. 16).
Highlighting WikiLeak’s status as a journalistic organization reminds us that rather than being beyond the pale, it should be situated firmly within the parameters of the free press tradition. The collaborative venture exercised an editorial hand with a keen eye to minimizing threats to humanitarian workers and to military operational security. The WikiLeaks case offers a glimpse of a template for a ‘new cooperative model’ between established news outlets and new comers. It can help to move us beyond the snooty idea that journalism is whatever traditional media tell us it is.
‘Networked journalism’ and ‘crowd-sourcing’ are being rapidly integrated into the operations of well-established news outlets. Such activities are not just free-loading on the ‘content’ of the mainstream press, but rather sometimes function as rivals, while partners at others. As the uprisings across the Arab world indicate, the network public sphere and crowd sourcing are fast becoming standard operating procedure in the global news system.
The history of cooperation between WikiLeak and the above news outlets has been far from smooth. It has been rife with tensions and personal animosities, especially, it appears, between at least one senior New York Times’ editor and Julian Assange. Beyond individual personalities, constant claims about ‘journalism in crisis’ have made it easy to cast the Internet in the role of villain. Yet, the bottom line in all this jostling between the ‘new’ and the ‘old’, is that members of the networked fourth estate deserve the full rights and protection of the ‘free press’ no less than ‘pamphleteers’ and well-established news outlets such as the Globe & Mail, New York Times or the Nation do.
Wikileaks sturdy journalistic credentials, Benkler argues, makes it all but impossible that any direct attempt by the U.S. Government to put WikiLeaks out of business could pass legal and Constitutional muster. The New York Times’ Pentagon Papers case in 1971 is, in fact, very instructive to the present situation, despite constant denials to the contrary.
The key figure in the Pentagon Papers case, Daniel Ellsberg, has already argued that Assange and WikiLeaks are no more treasonous and outside the scope of the free press protections of the U.S. Constitution than he and the New York Times were in the era of the Vietnam War. Benkler concurs, and walks us through the legal steps as to why this is so:
- unless the government can show that publication will result in direct, immediate and irreparable harm to the U.S., or its people, any attempts to prevent publication will run foul of the First Amendment;
- journalists cannot instruct their sources to steal documents, but they are not obligated to determine or reveal how the source obtained them;
- in times of war, there is no better counter to ‘strong presidents’ than a free press.
The parallels between these two events have been obscured by denial and the tendency in journalistic and other circles to belittle Internet-centric forms of journalism and commentary in the blogosphere. Yet, investigative journalism and commentary are not the sole dominion of the traditional press. They are a signature feature of Internet-based news and commentary outlets. Those qualities are more important than ever in light of the constant erosion of these capabilities within the mainstream media over the past two decades or so. Hot heads and conservatives may not like dissent, but that’s why freedom of speech, press and association exists to begin with.
The fact that WikiLeaks is so solidly at one with journalistic and free press traditions helps to explain why neither it nor any of the five major newspaper organizations — The Guardian, New York Times, Der Speigel, Le Monde and El Pais – that it is working with have faced direct efforts by the U.S. Government to suppress the publication of WikiLeaks’ documents. Although, as the Twitter case indicates, this was not for a lack of trying (see here for earlier post).
The problem, however, is that what the state has not been able to obtain by legal and constitutional measures, it has been able to gain with remarkable ease from private corporations and ‘market forces’. Thus, buckling under the slightest of pressure, Amazon removed all of Wikileaks’ content from its servers on the same day (December 1, 2010) that independent Senator and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chair, Joe Lieberman, called on “any . . . company or organization that is hosting Wikeleaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them”.
Two days later, the company everyDNS delisted Wikileaks from its domain name registry. As a result, Internet users who typed wikileaks.org into their browser or clicked on links pointing to that domain came up with a page indicating that the site was no longer available (in addition to Benkler, see the Guardian’s timeline on the sequence of events).
Wikileaks quickly found a new home at webserver firm OVH in France. This connection, however, was also severed after the French Industry Minister warned Internet companies on December 4 that there would be “consequences” for helping to keep Wikileaks online. The Swedish DNS provider, Switch, faced similar pressure, but refused to buckle. It continues to maintain the WikiLeaks.ch address that Internet users still use to access the site. It is also under a constant barrage of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. The Swedish-based Pirate Party also stepped in on December 5 to host the “cablegate” directory after they were taken off line in France and the US. Twitter has also resisted strong arm tactics from the U.S. government (see Twitter does the Right thing).
While Amazon and everyDNS took out part of WikiLeaks technical infrastructure, several other companies moved into to disable is financial underpinnings. Over the course of four days, Paypal (owned by eBay) (December 4), MasterCard and the Swiss Postal Office’s PostFinance (December 6), and Visa (December 7) suspended payment services directed by donors to the site.
The lessons here are three-fold. First, that private companies all too often all too eager to comply with political directives from the state. Cutting Wikileaks off from the key technical and financial resources after coming under the slightest bit of pressure essentially means that several key private businesses willing served as proxies for the U.S. and other governments to do what they would otherwise be prevented from doing by constitutional protections for the free press. This is a real threat to the networked free press. It is also one of the reasons that Wikileaks exists in the first place.
Second, efforts to suppress unwanted speech are never complete. The distributed nature of the Internet and dispersed actors committed to open media and a free press means that sites can and will be relocated elsewhere. However, that should not detract from the fact that fundamental open media principles have been seriously compromised in the meantime.
Third, the reticence to recognize new forms of journalism and to lash ourselves to the mast of the ‘old’ media is compromising the cultural foundations of the ‘networked free press’. A hostile political and cultural environment is not conducive to a ‘free press’. The response of traditional media organizations, in particular, in the U.S., and the New York Times especially, has been ambivalent on this point. By collaborating with WikiLeaks, they have polished the latter’s journalistic credentials. Just as importantly, they have also once again demonstrated that gaining access to attention in a cluttered media environment still requires ‘big media’.
As Benkler emphasizes, there are contrasts in how different news organizations see WikiLeaks. In contrast to the reluctance of the New York Times to treat it as anything more than just a source, and a mangy one at that, the Guardian sees its experience with WikiLeaks as a template for a ‘new model of cooperative journalism’. In fact, the Guardian and BBC are way ahead of their North American brethren when it comes to using ‘crowd-sourcing’ and ‘user-created content’ in news coverage.
The trend was kick-started in the UK with the London bombings in July 2005, and has continued to play a strong role since. If the current uprisings spreading through the Arab world are an indication, this ‘hybrid’ genre of news is now moving quickly from the margins to the mainstream.
The constant hand-wringing about the ‘crisis of journalism’ in the U.S. (and to a degree in Canada), and the tendency to lay this at the doorstep of the Internet, blogs and readers unwilling to pay or incapable of discerning good journalism from bad, has undermined the status of the networked free press in the culture at large. This ambivalence, along with the hard rights ability to reach easily for the ‘terrorist’ trope and unleash a vitriol hard to imagine in ‘normal times’, further compromises the ‘cultural protections’ needed for a networked free press.
Ultimately, Benkler does a great job, as he so often does, in drawing our attention to not just how the technology and economics of network media are decisive, but also how constitutions and culture play a pivotal role in determining whether the contribution of network media will, on balance, be a boon or bust for democratic societies.