Max Boot recently noted on CONTENTIONS that the New York Times’s decision to publish the WikiLeaks documents was a stark contrast to how newspapers handled leaks in the first half of the 20th century. “There was a time when editors and reporters thought of themselves as citizens first and journalists second,” he wrote. “There were damaging leaks even during World War II, but when they occurred they were generally denounced by the rest of the press.”
But I wonder, in the age of WikiLeaks, if the media still have the ability to take such a noble stance. Leakers who wanted to wreak havoc on our national security used to need reporters to play along. And there were practicalities — like ethical ramifications and not wanting to anger sources or readers — that prompted journalists to be cautious about what they published.
Foreign, ideologically driven rogues like Julian Assange obviously have no such obstacles. Assange’s sources of information are anti-American criminals with minds as twisted as his own, and his readers’ sensibilities clearly have no sway over his editorial decisions. Unburdened by any ethical code, and endowed with the limitless platform of the Internet, WikiLeaks has practically taken the journalists out of the equation. It acts as both the leaker and the reporter.
Which is why, if major platforms like the New York Times had refused to write about WikiLeaks, the story probably wouldn’t have quieted down. Because of the enormous influence of online media outlets, there hasn’t been a single arbiter of what constitutes news in years. Thousands of blogs and online publications eagerly jumped to report on the military documents as soon as they were posted on WikiLeaks. Network anchors read the cables on the air, Twitter was inundated with “cablegate” hashtags, and State Department officials held televised press conferences to discuss the crisis.
WikiLeaks is the root of the problem here, not the news outlets that covered its data dump. Even if the media refused to report the story, it wouldn’t have made a difference. All the wrong people would still be reading the unadulterated cables directly from Assange’s website.