Over the last couple of weeks a parade of non-journalists has approached me, offline and online, wanting to talk about the Wikileaks mess. Most of the discussion has boiled down to this, which I'm quoting from a note:
Why isn't the American press screaming at the top of its lungs about this. How can we let the Joe Lieberman's of the world lead this discussion. If the press doesn't take a stand here we are doomed. There will be no reason to have a "press" in this country. Politicians can simply post their "press releases" themselves.
I can think of some reasons. They are sad ones.
- Julian Assange isn't a "journalist," and Wikileaks isn't a "journalism organization." Many journalists are horrified by the implications of letting just anybody practice journalism. I've actually heard People Who Ought To Know Better -- journalists, educators, former editors of major newspapers -- call for certification and, in effect, the licensing of Real Journalists. It's as if freedom of the press is a privilege of professionals, not a human right of some mere computer nerd.
- The "liberal media" meme is bogus, a giant mind fake. The American press is an infotainment/advertising industry owned by giant corporations and run, on the whole, but rich white men for the financial benefit of themselves and investors. The "liberal media" complaint has long been the refuge of political weasels (remember Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew), but its latter-day power comes from the media itself, manipulated by ultra-rich power brokers like Rupert Murdoch.
- Corporations don't like to get caught up in controversy -- especially not these days, when media companies are all in big economic trouble. Reporting about controversy generates an audience. Being in the controversy alienates large parts of the potential audience. It's bad business. (Fox News is not a counterargument. To understand when and how partisanship becomes economically advantageous, read Jay Hamilton's All the News That's Fit to Sell.)
- Local media doesn't find this local issue. Our press has, as I predicted years ago, separated out into distinct local and national layers. Most local newspapers today give only a passing nod to nonlocal news (and as a result, AP gets 80% of its revenues elsewhere). Don't go looking for your local newspaper to be worrying about foreign-policy fraud. Not their jobs. Our national mass media scene now is whittled down to a couple of rage-exploitation channels on cable, the New York Times, Murdoch's kleptocracy-supporting Wall Street Journal, and a pathetic free Gannett paper that everybody steps on when walking out of their hotel room in the morning. The network news organizations are hollow shells speaking to dying audiences, fearful of accelerating their own demise by taking a stand.
- The concept of "property" has been extended to embrace information, supporting the claim that the information from secret cables is "stolen property." It used to be that telling a lie about a person or a corporation could get you into trouble. Now governments and corporations can claim injury when someone states a fact, and, stunningly, act to enforce silence without any judicial oversight. Now, if you can't tell a lie and you can't state a fact, what else is there? (Note that these restrictions do not apply to those in power -- as shown by the cables, Washington is free to lie, and insiders strategically leak classified information whenever it's politically advantageous.)
There are many people who are legitimately troubled by the release of secret information and there is plenty of cause to question the judgment of the Wikileaks editors who are posting this stuff. Don't go around expecting anyone to have clean hands. I keep coming back to a couple of basic principles. One is that the purpose of government is to protect the rights of the people. The other is that our first freedom is the right to speak freely the truth. If our government turns its back on that freedom, then none of the others will matter. But I'm not writing newspaper editorials or running a newsroom these days.