US media outlets criticised for their WikiLeaks stance
Emily Badger: US media outlets criticised for their WikiLeaks stance
10 Apr 11

One of the oddest strands of the WikiLeaks story in the US over the past year — and this week marks the one-year anniversary of the release of the “collateral murder” video that first launched the site to fame — has been the reaction of other journalists. Traditional media outlets would seem to share much in common with the whistle-blowing site, most importantly the core public-service mission of holding power accountable.

US media outlets, though — and even those that have worked alongside WikiLeaks — have been among the outfit’s harshest critics.

“They’ve been joining — even leading — the chorus calling for the prosecution of WikiLeaks,” liberal columnist Glenn Greenwald said Friday at the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston. He held particular scorn for New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, who has been on a public speaking circuit lately trying to draw a distinction between the responsible Gray Lady and its troubled “source.” (Just imagine, suggested Christopher Warren, of the Australian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, if every journalist had to pass the personality test to which Julian Assange has been held.)

Theories abound as to where all the hostility comes from, and it does seem to be unique to the American media. In it’s simplest form, it may be rooted in pure competitive jealousy. But Greenwald and several other panelists Friday pointed to a more worrisome strand in the US media psyche — a fear of illegitimate interlopers among the professional class of “gatekeepers.”

This could have dangerous consequences, Warren warns. When US media outlets like the New York Times insists on calling WIkiLeaks a “source” and not a media partner, they make it easier for the government to deny WikiLeaks — or any organisation like it in the future — the institutional protections afforded the press.

Australian journalists get this, Warren said.

“They understand that if we allow WikiLeaks to be singled out,” he said, “it’s a threat to every person who seeks to practice independent journalism.”

One of the other great ironies of this story is that, as Harvard professor Yochai Benkler has pointed out, government officials and traditional-media critics have come down all the harder on Wikileaks as it has grown more responsible, and come more to resemble a traditional media organisation than a mere document-dumping one. From the “collateral murder” video to the Iraq war logs, to the Afghan diaries to the diplomatic cable cache, WikiLeaks has evolved in how it releases documents, whom it gives them to and what gets redacted.

Today, it functions an awful lot like a media outlet in that sense — but a media outlet that differs from the Times, in Greenwald’s eyes, in that it feels no deference to the US government.