Newsrooms are trying everything to stay relevant in the Information Age. In the era of social media, blogs, and YouTube, the journalism industry is struggling to find its place in a world where information flows freely, no longer constrained by publishing bottlenecks.
But every technological advance or new tool added to the reporter’s arsenal has been aimed at improving the same basic model. The changes are mostly limited to style, with little attention given to improving the substance.
As the industry scrambles to find its salvation, it shouldn’t be looking only at Twitter or the iPad; it should also take a good hard look at WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks, a website run by a non-profit group called the Sunshine Press, publishes sensitive and/or classified information that has driven front page news stories and embarrassed governments and powerful institutions all over the world.
In an October editorial, The Guardian described the enigmatic website as “an uncensorable and untraceable depository for the truth.”
More than 10.2 million documents have been posted on the site, including Sarah Palin’s hacked emails, the “Climategate” documents that suggested that scientists at the UK’s Climate Research Unit withheld information that didn’t support global warming, a corporate report about toxic dumping on Africa’s Ivory Coast and an operating manual from the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
WikiLeaks shoved its way into the national conversation on April 5, when it released a video shot from an Apache helicopter over Baghdad that shows a brutal aerial attack in which two Reuters employees were killed.
Reuters had made an unsuccessful attempt to get a look at the footage through a FOIA request, but WikiLeaks was able to both obtain and decrypt the video despite having neither the clout nor the resources of an industry stalwart like Reuters.
The video, stamped with the intentionally provocative title “Collateral Murder,” has been viewed more than 6.5 million times on YouTube, the kind of impact that traditional news organizations dream about.
This non-profit upstart scooped the entire media establishment and gave the world one of the most vivid glimpses of what the Iraq War actually looks like.
The WikiLeaks ethos is mixture of deep skepticism of the established order combined with a hacker mentality of anonymous, open-source collaboration and programming wizardry.
The group’s broad mission statement is virtually interchangeable with standard journalistic platitudes.
WikiLeaks defines itself on its Twitter profile in one concise declaration: “We open governments.”
The site is a conscientious leaker’s dream. It takes all the ease and convenience of the digital age and extends it to whistleblowers.
The WikiLeaks buzz recently prompted New York Times reporter Noam Cohen to ask Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, what he would do if he wanted to go public with sensitive information today.
“As of today, I wouldn’t have waited that long,” Ellsberg said. “I would have gotten a scanner and put them on the Internet.”
The WikiLeaks model hopes to improve the fundamental substance of journalism by taking the old adage about shining light in dark corners and bringing it into a 21st Century defined by the uninhibited flow of information.
Julian Assange, an Australian former hacker who has stepped into the spotlight as the public face of WikiLeaks, described his vision of what he and his colleagues are offering to the world: “Historically it has been the press that has created the most important part of the public record. But I believe in a new balancing estate, a new age of journalistic integrity, and a new form of civic courage – based, like our best science, not on backroom whispers and selective quotations, but on documented evidence, from Tehran to Washington, about how powerful organizations actually behave.”
Depending on how you look at it, WikiLeaks could be poised to usher in a golden age of investigative journalism or it could be another reckless and deceptive outlet joining a chorus of misinformation found online.
Either way, with the release of the Collateral Murder video, journalists would do well to take note of what this bold and mysterious group has been able to accomplish.
WikiLeaks made it no secret that the presentation of the Collateral Murder video was designed for maximum political effect. From the title to the closing sequence, the video is set up to lead the viewer toward WikiLeaks’ conclusion that the footage shows an unforgivable act of cruelty by the U.S. military that left 12 people dead and two children wounded.
The military never denied that the incident occurred, but Reuters was largely blocked from learning the details about how its employees were killed. The official explanation seemed to boil down to “wrong place, wrong time,” but the WikiLeaks video shows that there might have been more to the story.
The 18-minute clip opens with a quote from George Orwell: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Photos of the two Reuters employees who were killed, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver/assistant Saeed Chmagh, flash on the screen before the grainy, black-and-white helicopter footage starts to roll.
The leaked footage was shot in July 2007 from an apache circling over the New Baghdad suburb after U.S. forces had been involved in a firefight with insurgents in the area. The Reuters employees were walking with a group of men, some of which appeared to be armed with AK-47s and RPGs.
The helicopter opens fire on the group milling about in the street, cutting down about eight men in a matter of seconds. A few minutes later, an unmarked van arrives on the scene and two men get out and rush to pick up Chmagh, who was badly wounded and crawling away. The apache then fires on the van, killing several more and wounding two children who were inside.
As jarring as the footage is on its own, the coarse attitudes and laughter of the soldiers on the tape make it even more chilling.
“Oh yeah look at those dead bastards,” says one soldier.
“Nice,” the other replies.
When Chmagh is trying to crawl away, the shooter itches to fire on him again.
“All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” he says.
When ground forces arrive on the scene, the men in the chopper laugh as a Humvee appears to drive over one of the bodies.
Response and Criticism
A few days after the video’s release, WikiLeaks was the most-searched term on Google.
It generated an enormous burst of interest, not all of it positive for WikiLeaks.
The New York Times had written stories about the incident when it happened in 2007, but it was forced to update its coverage by crediting the little-known site for bringing the new details to light.
The Washington Post published a short item about the video’s release, but directed readers to an excerpt of a book written by Post reporter David Finkel, who had actually been on the ground in Baghdad covering the same event. Finkel had clearly seen the video and had written about it in his 2009 book “The Good Soldiers,” but his reporting didn’t have anywhere near the same impact as the video release. Unsurprisingly, the YouTube generation seems to favor visceral footage rather than an obscure written account tucked away in a book.
Military officials confirmed the video’s authenticity but maintained that the proper rules of engagement had been followed and thatt the Reuters journalists were simply too close to enemy combatants in what was one of the hottest battle zones in Baghdad.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates called WikiLeaks irresponsible and said that the video gave a narrow view of the events, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“That is the problem with these videos,” Gates said. “You are looking at the war through a soda straw and you have no context or perspective.”
A posse of military defenders took to the blogosphere to denounce the video as deceptive and an unfair attack on the military.
“The city was a war zone. To describe the attack you see in the video as “murder” is a sensationalist gimmick that succeeded in driving tons of media attention and traffic to Wikileaks’ website,” wrote Bill Roggio of The Weekly Standard.
Some criticized the video for being deceptively edited, which Assange attempted to ward off by releasing a 40-minute unedited version of the video.
Assange set out on a media blitz, granting dozens of TV interviews and churning out quotes for newspaper stories about the video.
In an April 12 appearance on The Colbert Report, the host seemed to briefly drop his patriotic shtick to give Assange some straight-shooting criticism for pre-packaging the video to fit a selected narrative.
“That’s not leaking,” Colbert said. “That’s a pure editorial.”
Assange defended himself by arguing that the content has to be spiced up in order for sources to feel that a leak will be worthwhile.
“The promise we make to our sources is that not only will we defend them through every means that we have available – technological, and legally and politically – but we will try and get the maximum possible political impact for the material that they give to us,” Assange said.
But WikiLeaks also had plenty of defenders, many of whom reveled in the episode as a triumph of the little guy over the supposed giants of journalism.
“I wonder how WikiLeaks is able to break so many stories without publishing ‘beat sweeteners,’ spending tens of thousands of dollars to be seen at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and currying favor with White House officials in exchange for access,” wrote Salon blogger and media critic Glenn Greenwald.
Many agreed with the assessment of The National’s Rupert Wright, who wrote in 2009, “Wikileaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years.”
The History of WikiLeaks
The Swedish-based website, launched in January 2007, describes itself as a “non-profit organization funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public.”
When the site first launched, it described its goals as follows: “Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations.”
WikiLeaks set out to torment those targets by becoming a clearinghouse for any and all information that powerful interests would want to keep secret.
The site has no formal ties to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia produced by the efforts of thousands of anonymous Internet users. But the parallels between the two sites are clear. They both share a sense of openness, collaboration and freedom that fuels almost every exciting and innovative online project.
The original blueprint for how the site would operate paid homage to its more prominent predecessor. “To the user, Wikileaks will look very much like Wikipedia. Anybody can post to it, anybody can edit it. No technical knowledge is required. Leakers can post documents anonymously and untraceably. Users can publicly discuss documents and analyze their credibility and veracity. Users can discuss interpretations and context and collaboratively formulate collective publications. Users can read and write explanatory articles on leaks along with background material and context. The political relevance of documents and their verisimilitude will be revealed by a cast of thousands.”
Since then, WikiLeaks has undergone a series of transformations, and it now bears little resemblance to Wikipedia besides the name.
The site was criticized early for its seeming lack of control. Some argued that a commitment to extreme openness would create a clutter of unverified and inaccurate content that would hinder the site’s effectiveness and credibility.
“In the absence of accountable editorial oversight, publication can more easily become an act of aggression or an incitement to violence, not to mention an invasion of privacy or an offense against good taste,” wrote Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation for American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, after being invited to serve on the site’s advisory board.
WikiLeaks adopted an internal review process by which administrators could pick out the most relevant and compelling content for publication, leaving users the ability to only submit content for review and post comments.
Currently, most of the site’s content is inaccessible as part of a fundraising strike. The site was modified in December in a ploy to get people to donate funds to cover an estimated $600,000 in operating costs this year. The front page now includes only the Collateral Murder video, postings of a few time-sensitive documents and online donation forms while the administrators prepare for a full relaunch.
Assange described the decision as purely economic in an interview with German blogger Stefan Mey.
“We give free and important information to the world every day. But when the supply is infinite in the sense that everyone is able to download what we publish, the perceived value starts to reduce down to zero. So by withdrawing supply and making our supply to zero, people start to once again perceive the value of what we are doing,” Assange said.
The site has five full-time editors and about 800 volunteers who do occasional work, according to Assange.
Most of the site’s administrators and contributors remain anonymous, leading many to criticize the organization for valuing its own secrecy while insisting on transparency for others.
Assange is a mystery in and of himself. He’s best described as a “hacktivist,” a hacker turned activist that uses his skills to promote social or political ends. As a teenager, he was convicted on 24 counts for hacking into Australian government and telecommunications networks.
A Mother Jones profile of Assange published the day after the Collateral Murder release gave perhaps the best glimpse into the man behind WikiLeaks.
“Amid this swirl of wanted and unwanted attention, Assange (pronounced A-sanj) lives like a man on the lam. He won’t reveal his age—‘Why make it easy for the bastards?’ He prefers talking on the phone instead of meeting in person, and seems to never use the same number twice. His voice is often hushed, and gaps fill the conversation, as if he’s constantly checking over his shoulder. Like him, the organization behind his next-generation whistleblowing machine can also be maddeningly opaque,” wrote David Kushner.
WikiLeaks goes to great lengths to cover its tracks. Much of the work behind Collateral Murder was done in Iceland to take advantage of strong press freedom laws put forth by the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which seeks to create a “global safe haven for investigative journalism.”
The paranoia isn’t unwarranted. WikiLeaks has faced countless legal challenges and bouts with government censorship.
In 2008, the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center produced an internal report about the threat posed by WikiLeaks and explored ideas for how to bring the site down. Naturally, that report was obtained and published on the WikiLeaks site in March.
An excerpt from the report demonstrates precisely why WikiLeaks is so valuable: “Web sites such as Wikileaks.org have trust as their most important center of gravity by protecting the anonymity and identity of the insider, leaker, or whistleblower. Successful identification, prosecution, termination of employment, and exposure of persons leaking the information by the governments and businesses affected by information posted to Wikileaks.org would damage and potentially destroy the center of gravity and deter others from taking similar actions.”
Why WikiLeaks Matters
Recent events have underscored the necessity of whistleblower protection and journalism shield laws.
On April 15, a former NSA employee named Thomas Drake was indicted in a federal court for his role in leaking classified information about the NSA wiretapping program to a Baltimore Sun reporter.
Less than two weeks later, a New York Times reporter named James Risen was subpoenaed to testify before a grand Jury May 4 about his sources for a chapter of a book he wrote about the CIA’s efforts to disrupt the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
For all the lip service being given to the idea of a federal shield law, the Obama administration has proven that it’s not above prosecuting whistleblowers and reporters who dare to inform the public about what our government is doing behind the all-encompassing curtain of national security.
If the rumors are true, WikiLeaks might be preparing a system that would beat any shield law.
In October, IDG News Service published a story in which Assange claimed to be building a submission system that would allow news organizations to embed an “upload a disclosure to me via WikiLeaks” form on their website.
“We will take the burden of protecting the source and the legal risks associated with publishing the document,” Assange said.
According to the article, WikiLeaks would confirm the authenticity of the submitted information and then hand the documents over to the news organization that solicited the leak. After the organization publishes its story, WikiLeaks would publish the corresponding documents that back it up.
It’s an interesting idea, but it remains to be seen whether it’s practical and whether news organizations would want to hand over their source material to a shadowy group like WikiLeaks.
But if it works, confidential sources would be free to transmit sensitive information without any midnight meetings in parking garages or traceable correspondence with reporters.
WikiLeaks isn’t perfect, even though its goals and motives seem to align fairly well the core mission of journalism.
Good arguments can be made by those who accuse WikiLeaks of hypocrisy, recklessness and muckraking. Most importantly, it remains unknown just how much of WikiLeaks content is actually leaked by anonymous sources and how much is obtained by hackers who then turn the material over to the site.
Still, the group of secretive anti-heroes stands in stark contrast to many in the Washington press corps who seem more thrilled to hobnob with the glitterati than they are to speak truth to power.
The next big exposé is far more likely to come from a place like WikiLeaks than from anyone in attendance at Saturday’s White House Correspondents Dinner.
Even if journalists can’t fully embrace the hacker mentality that fuels WikiLeaks, they would do well to adopt a similar sense of irreverence and skepticism.
The world’s powerful institutions, including the media, have failed the people they so often profess to serve.
Last year, a Pew Research Center for People & the Press survey found that trust in the news media has hit a new low. Sixty-three percent of respondents said that news stories are often inaccurate.
That trust is much more likely to be restored by news organizations that can consistently produce documentation of wrongdoing rather than those who come up with the cleverest use for Twitter.
An editorial that appeared in the UK’s The Guardian in October praised WikiLeaks for pushing the boundaries of unfettered access to information: “It takes power away from the powerful and hands it to citizens, (a) controversial but essential example of what the web does best: offering unrestricted dispersal of information so that people can judge for themselves.”
For all the focus on how to deliver news and how to build a profitable business model off of news, it doesn’t seem much thought is being given to how to improve the news itself.
On that front, WikiLeaks is putting on a clinic.
It may very well be impossible for traditional news organizations to duplicate WikiLeaks’ methods and not cross any legal boundaries. It’s unlikely that the big newspapers will be recruiting hackers for their investigative teams any time soon. But the site’s impressive track record has once again demonstrated the power and importance of investigative journalism.
The next explosive release may already be in the works. Assange claims to be in possession of a 2009 video showing a U.S. attack on a tanker in Afghanistan that left more than 90 dead.
The WikiLeaks ethos shouldn’t be adopted wholesale by the journalism industry, but it’s an inspiring bright spot for the future of informed democracy and information freedom.