Circling the Lion's Den

WikiLeaks case highlights crisis in journalism

Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan

The phenomenal attention that WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange are attracting underscores that the global public is hungry for serious information about serious events. However it's unlikely that Wikileaks and Assange are giving them what they want. What WikiLeaks is doing has little in common with either journalism or activism.

Despite Assanges declarations that WikiLeaks is a group comprising journalists and activists, Wikileaks activities cannot in any way be equated with journalism. And this group has little in common with journalistic activists of the past.

What WikiLeaks has done is publish online a massive number of reports without checking the facts, without putting them in context, and without analyzing them. Assange says that is beyond the capacity of his organization, but for the professional community, this task poses no such insurmountable challenge.

Newspapers publish articles on the basis of documents, but never documents without any analysis not because they lack the bravery to behave like Assange. Rather it is because the people who read their reports are interested in the analysis that the journalist provides. By definition, a reader cannot devote as much time as a journalist does to the study of any problem, therefore the reader trusts the conclusions and analysis of the journalist. In order not to become the victim of manipulation, the reader checks the byline because each journalist has a reputation by which they are judged.

The difference between how WikiLeaks and journalists understand information became clear with its Iraq dossier. WikiLeaks made public thousands of reports by American military personnel suggesting that Iran is supplying arms to Iraqi insurgents. That was trusted mostly because it was leaked, but in fact the only truth established was that the American military had reported to their seniors that Iran is involved.

It is obvious that it is impossible to trust this information without verifying it. For example, from the mid-1990s the FSB was busy declaring that Western intelligence services were active in Chechnya, but it's unlikely that we would believe that, even if FSB reports containing these claims and marked Top Secret were leaked. Any serious journalist would want to verify such clearly self-interested declarations.

But in the case of WikiLeaks, neither those who put the documents on-line nor many of their readers seem willing to examine the content of these documents with the kind of care and skepticism that journalism not only encourages but requires.

A few commentators have suggested that WikiLeaks activities should be equated with activist-journalists like Seymour Hersh who wrote about torture in Baghdads Abu Ghraib prison or Anna Politkovskaya who described the execution of innocent Chechens by a Russian spetsnaz officer Eduard Ulman. But there is a big difference. Hersh and Politkovskaya were interested in exposing specific kinds of abuses in order to stop them. They and others like them engaged in painstaking journalistic investigative work, and they were supported by human rights activists who took up the cause to end the abuses these journalists uncovered.

The activity of WikiLeaks has not yet led to anything like that.

Instead, at least to judge from Assanges comments, the groups activities have too many and too diffuse goals to lead one to expect that Wikileaks publications will lead to the formation of any group or groups to address whatever problems are revealed.

What makes the current case interesting is that not only that ordinary Internet users but also leading Western publications have rallied to WikiLeaks support (it is hardly worth mentioning the Russian media given its failure to make any use of FSB documents posted on last summer).

What appears to be happening is a response to the decline in both the number of and support for investigative reporters in Western countries and the frustration felt by many of them in that regard. There have been staff cuts across media outlets, and expensive investigative reporters are often the first to go.

As a result, the number of investigative articles is declining, and the WikiLeaks site, it would appear, is filling this gap. For some angry journalists, supporting WikiLeaks is like telling the audience, you didnt want to deal with us, so you will deal with people like Assange.

That may make them feel better, but if one reflects on just how many documents WikiLeaks has published so far, it is striking that the picture of the world has not changed all that much. And that in turn gives rise to a sense that something else is going on here.

IIn the case of WikiLeaks, it is now a case of quantity over quality, which makes the site a sensation and its founder a celebrity. We are more impressed by numbers of leaked documents and reports rather than content of the documents. And that explains why so many people are following not what is posted online as much as the biography of Assange himself, yet another testimony to the serious crisis in which journalism now finds itself.

Agentura.Ru, December 2, 2010. Published in Ezhednevny Journal.