How could journalists disagree with Assange?

By Steve Outing

Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, during a Democracy Now interview:

“We have clearly stated motives, but they are not antiwar motives. We are not pacifists. We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization, is to get out suppressed information into the public, where the press and the public and our nation’s politics can work on it to produce better outcomes.”

(Hat-tip to Peggy Holman of Journalism That Matters for pointing this out.)

Hmmm, a slight variation would sound like a worthy goal for … the news media!

As we begin another year of media transformation, I can’t help but feel a bit depressed about the state of the (mainstream) news media here in the U.S., and the American reaction to Wikileaks’ action is a big part of the problem. As the federal government and many politicians line up for the scalp of Julian Assange, support for Wikileaks seems to be coming mostly from overseas, and American journalists’ support is far weaker than I’d like to see.

  • The editor of Spanish newspaper El Pais has written a wonderful essay: “Editor Javier Moreno explains the decision to publish the State Department cables, which expose on an unprecedented scale the extent to which Western leaders lie to their electorates.” … A highlight: “The incompetence of Western governments, and their inability to deal with the economic crisis, climate change, corruption, or the illegal war in Iraq and other countries has been eloquently exposed in recent years. Now, thanks to WikiLeaks, we also know that our leaders are all too aware of their shameful fallibility, and that it is only thanks to the inertia of the machinery of power that they have been able to fulfill their democratic responsibility and answer to the electorate.”
  • A Romanian news organization has given Assange a Press Freedom Award. Previously, he has won the Economist Index of Censorship Award (2008) and the Amnesty International UK Media Awards (2009). He also won the Sam Adams Award in 2010; that’s a U.S. award granted annually by retired CIA officers to honor an intelligence professional who has taken a stand for integrity and ethics (often awarded to whistleblowers).
  • Le Monde (France) named Assange its “Person of the Year.” Meanwhile, U.S.-based Time magazine named Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg its “Person of the Year,” despite Time’s own website reader poll coming out clearly in favor of Assange as the best choice. (Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel’s statement in an interview, “Assange might not even be on anybody’s radar six months from now,” is telling of how old-media journalists don’t seem to grasp the impact that Wikileaks and its successors have and will continue to have on altering their profession.)
  • In Australia (Assange’s home), hundreds of journalists, lawyers, and academics loudly condemned the prime minister for calling the leaks “an illegal act” and suggesting that Assange’s Australian passport be revoked.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer, has been a stolid supporter of Wikileaks and Assange, but as a frequent TV guest on American news programs he’s complained, “From the start of the WikiLeaks controversy, the most striking aspect for me has been that the ones who are leading the crusade against the transparency brought about by WikiLeaks — the ones most enraged about the leaks and the subversion of government secrecy — have been … America’s intrepid Watchdog journalists. … It just never seems to dawn on them — even when you explain it — that the transparency and undermining of the secrecy regime against which they are angrily railing is supposed to be … what they do.” (Emphasis mine.)

And it’s not just that bizarre point of view that’s a problem. Many of America’s “finest” news organizations (and some global ones) have been guilty of laziness and/or carelessness in their reporting on Wikileaks. Normally, I love NPR, but the latest column from its ombudsman has me losing some faith. Alicia Shepard tells of how NPR was guilty over a prolonged period of misstating the number of diplomatic cables that Wikileaks had published — with multiple reporters and anchors stating that it had published or released “thousands” when the real number is 1,947 or less than 1% of what Wikileaks has in its possession. It took a dogged complainer weeks to get NPR to issue a correction.

Worse yet, Louisiana State graduate student Matthew Schafer has discovered the same mistake being made by the Associated Press, New York Times, Politico, UPI, The Economist, Mashable, BBC, Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. All of those news organizations have implied in their reporting that all 250,000-plus State Department documents obtained by WikiLeaks had been published or released.

What could explain this odd behavior by much of the mainstream news media? Certainly there are multiple forces at play, but I have to think that one of them is the overall decline in the quality of journalism in the last couple of years — a result of a horrible economic climate on top of the digital transition for news companies which has resulted in the loss of so many editorial jobs.

Could it be that those remaining in jobs with mainstream “big-media” companies tread lightly and seem more in tune with government and corporate interests than the “new whistleblowers” because they want to keep those jobs?

Whatever the reason, it’s pathetic.

Perhaps the hope for American news media in 2011 will be the newish wave of non-profit investigative reporting entities that don’t need to behave in such an obsequious manner to those in power.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!