Contra, Wikileaks is very much a Journalistic Organization

I found this piece by Michael C. Moynihan criticizing the journalistic bona fides of Wikileaks to be tripe. And it should be condemned by libertarians.

Writes Moynihan:

If Assange wants to be a journalist—and he consistently identifies himself as one—he would be advised to cease referring to Wikileaks as an “activist organization” attempting to make a “political impact” and “achieve justice.”

Let me ask Moynihan a simple question: Do and you and your cohorts at Reason consider yourselves journalists? Is not the purpose of Reason to have an explicit political impact? I’m sure Nick Gillespie’s resume doesn’t list his current occupation as “Chief Activist.” In fact, I imagine it says “Editor-in-Chief,” And yet there was ole Nick standing with Drew Cary in front of the Cleveland City Council lobbying for an expansion of Charter Schools. Does this overt political activism thusly expel Gillespie from the profession and likewise Reason from the ranks of journalistic publications?

Journalism is divided into categories that make room for things advocacy/investigative journalism and opinion journalism. Of course, many will say that that these categories are often largely artificial to begin with. For example, it was readily apparent that the reporting at Fox News(and by reporting, we mean stories that are “sourced,” whether explicitly or anonymously) during the Bush Administration was skewed toward the “Red Team.” Likewise, it’s just as apparent that the reporting at MSNBC these days is skewed toward the “Blue Team.”

At one point, Wikileaks refrained from advocating any ideological point of view for the most part. It more or less served as a “sourced document” repository that relied on the blogosphere or even traditional reporters to use it’s sources for reporting. This obviously has changed in some respects. Wikileaks has become much more ideological(an ideology that slants very much libertarian/anti-authoritarian). This was consciously done, no doubt, in part to increase attention and funding.But this is no different than the likes of Fox or MSNBC who deliberately skew their editorial bias for the sake of branding, ratings, and advertising revenue.

Wikileaks is a news organization but, no doubt, in a bit of a different way than is traditionally thought. This is out of necessity because we are no longer talking about mere political reporting, but reporting on institutional behavior where the institutions themselves operate outside of any legal or political constraints. In this scenario, traditional media fails. So Wikileaks, like traditional news organizations, relies on sources in government. But, unlike traditional news organizations, it has no “reporters.” That’s because merely reporting spoken,verbal or communicated information from the source has no credibility. It therefore must rely on the leaking that is officially documented, and not on unofficial communication leaks.

A universal property of any large unaccountable institution is excessive hierarchical segmentation and compartmentalization of information. With the State, this unaccountability will be enforced by “law,” vis a via “security classifications.” In States run amuck with no accountability, the security classifications of institutional information will be greatly and artificially expanded. A “news organization” like Wikileaks–that is concerned with reporting on institutional behavior instead of the politics of the cult of personality–will then very likely end up breaking “laws.”

To spell it out to the clueless Moynihan, Wikileaks is indeed an example of a New “New Journalism.” The Blogosphere can be classified as a form of “New Journalism.” But it is still driven primarily by traditionally sourced reporting from traditional media(in this sense, it’s more of a form of opinion journalism). However, a blogopshere that can be driven, at least at times, by a distributed “document sourced” reporting news agency is very much an example of a New “New Journalism.” Bloggers, who for the most part are not traditional journalists in the sense of “sourced reporting,” become an actual reporting arm of a document-sourced news agency provider. From a Hayekian information economics perspective, this is what you would expect in the age of Big Brother.

I had to laugh at the recent Pentagon demand for Wikileaks to close shop and hand over their documents:

“The only acceptable course is for WikiLeaks to take steps to immediately return all versions of all of those documents to the US government and permanently delete them from its website, computers, and records.”

I’m not sure that the Pentagon tax-feeder spokesman Geoff Morrell quite gets it. Wikileaks is not a central repository. It’s a geographically distributed network, the full operational extent of it being unknown by anyone one person within the network/organization. The underlying organizational theory is one radical libertarians/anarchists have been grappling with for awhile now: how to patch together various jurisdictional legal frameworks to create a de facto protection of sorts for a stateless order, and where any one given jurisdiction would meet substantial political resistance if it unilaterally attempted to shut down this network by violating the legal authority of the other jurisdictions. For example, Patri Friedman’s Seasteading proposal thinks it can achieve this vis a vis the maritime laws. In the case of Wikileaks, it’s using various European State privacy laws and the fact the internet itself, as a global public packet-switched communications network, functions vis a vis an open, cooperative coordination across national boundaries.

Of course, even a putrid tax-feeder like Morrell isn’t so obtsuse as to think Wikileaks can delete the sourced documents that have been already released for public consumption. These now, of course, exist on the hard drives of PCs and hand-held devices all over the word(not even mentioning the mirrored copies of the website). No, what he is referring to are the documents that have not been released. But these documents, once introduced into the Wikileaks network, really can’t be deleted. This is by design. And they certainly can’t be deleted by Julian Assange. From all the accounts I’ve read, Assange, even though his past hacker days are often brought to the fore, really has no control or even much detailed operational knowledge of the network, for that matter(this follows the now well-known asymmetric operational design paradigm). Assange’s title is “Editor.” And that’s what he does. He heads a group that retains editorial control over vetting the documents and deciding which documents are to be released and at what time they are to be released. However, as a result of the public threats from the US government, Assange may have changed the editorial policy to release all or many of the unvetted documents as a symmetric-key encrypted document, which can then be decrypted back to plain text with the release of the secret passkey(Note: it is outside the scope of this post to speculate whether this is a bluff or not. But there are good reasons why it could be a bluff ).

Let us return to Moynihan’s critique. Another bullet-point charge that Moynihan makes against Wikileaks is that the released Afghanistan “sourced-documentation” didn’t offer anything new. In other words, there is no failure of traditional journalistic reporting.

It’s up to specialists in military affairs and those with a deep understanding of Afghanistan to determine if these documents will ultimately add to our understanding of the war or, as has been frequently argued, if such raw intelligence data simply add detail—some extraneous, some misleading, some valuable—to what we already knew. While it seems implausible that in 91,000 pages of secret documents there is nothing unknown, it is more likely that there is simply nothing explosive here. As New York Times editor Bill Keller told CNN, his reporters dug out plenty of interesting material but the cache wasn’t “full of scandals or revelations.”

In a sense, I think Moynihan perhaps misses the real revelation: the voluminous extent of the sourced documentation is the “revelation.” It marks the arrival of “document-sourced” journalism. I have to especially laugh at Moynihan’s statist propaganda tripe that you have to be a military expert to determine if these documents add to the understanding to the Af-Pak war. Shit. Anyone with an IQ above freezing and who is paying attention knows this war is fucked. The ones who are least likely to be aware of this are the actual goddamned experts. While it is true that the documents for the most part don’t disclose anything new that one could ascertain from a daily reading of traditional reporting aggregated by the likes of, however, that quite a bit of the reporting is foreign), it nonetheless is true that the documents serve a valuable source to accurately model the failure. And this is invaluable. For god sakes, you have open congressional testimony where military leaders acknowledge there is little to no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. And is is widely reported. But the political classes, including the Obama Administration, keep justifying the Afghanistan occupation as a war against al-Qaeda. There is a real disconnect here that apparently can’t be overcome by traditional reporting. You need document-sourced reporting to accurately and visually model the failure. For example, the abu ghraib photos, or the collateral murder video. Wikileaks does have a video account of 2009 Granai airstrike, in conjunction with the operational field reports, and this will be released at some point. And it will cause a media shit storm even though the civilian travesty of the Granai airstrikes is common knowledge.

One thing to point out regarding the documents, at least from my vantage point, is that one thing I learned that was “new” is how these “drones,” heralded as a new miracle weapon, create a coordination nightmare in even Afghanistan Air Space and how accidental-prone the operation of these drones is. When we recently read how the FAA was holding up the implementation of Drones(many various state and federal law enforcement agencies are requesting to have their own Drones) in US airspace , now we know why. These things would be an absolute public safety hazard buzzing around in US airspace.

Finally, Moynihan criticizes Wikileaks for lacking “journalistic ethics.”

When attacked for exposing the names of Afghan informants, and potentially exposing them to Taliban retribution, Assange lapsed into incoherence, citing the hitherto unknown “journalists shouldn’t prognosticate” rule: “In journalism we should actually ignore people that say something might happen or could happen.” It’s a rule that would frequently require that we ignore Julian Assange.

It should be noted that Wikileaks claims it tried to work with the White House to protect whatever “intelligence assets” the US government now claims are threatened. Ironically, Moynihan quotes Bill Keller in his piece to make the case against Wikileaks being a “journalistic organization.” But it should also be noted that the New York Times, during the Bush Administration, was involved in a case where it was in negotiations with the Bush Admin over publishing classified material, specifically in the case of how the NSA tracked al-Qaeda satellite phone communications. The New York Times published the information and the Bush Admin condemned the publication as a major breach of US Intelligence and National Security. Therefore, by Moynihan’s own standard, we should ignore Bill Keller and dismiss the New York Times(frankly, I think using the New York Times as journalist source to criticize wikileaks presents problems to begin with, given that the Times has had it’s own issues with journalistic integrity in the past. And given the Judith Miller’s erroneous reporting in the run-up to the Iraq War sort of makes the case for the need of document-sourced reporting).

In summary, Moynihan’s case against Wikileaks being a journalistic organization has no merit. The United States, in threatening Wkileaks, is constrained by a previous Supreme Court decision regarding the Pentagon Papers that held that a Journalistic Organization publishing classified material is not subject to any criminal sanction(It’s protected by the 1st Amendment). If the US Government were to arrest Julian Assange, it’s entire case would primarily rest on making the case that Assange was not a journalist but rather an anti-american ideologue engaged in espionage against the United States. That Reason, a purported libertarian publication, would publish drivel supporting the US government’s underlying argument in this matter of fundamental importance is despicable. And you don’t get off the hook by claiming to support Wikileaks while attempting to eviscerate it’s legal protection. If Moynihan is too stupid to realize that stripping Wikileaks of it’s journalistic protections makes Julian Assange a prosecutable enemy of the State, then my suggestion to Moynihan is to find another fucking profession.

4 thoughts on “Contra, Wikileaks is very much a Journalistic Organization

  1. Excellent. Some members of the Reason editorial staff are reliably reliable on matters like this. Others are not. I found Moynihan’s piece disappointing, and I’m pleased you took the time to critique it.

    1. Thanks…

      When I saw that this piece was being referenced in the conservative blogosphere, I was motivated to write a rebuttal.

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