Ever since WikiLeaks first emerged on the scene in 2010, there has been a debate about whether the organization should qualify as a media entity, and if so what duty we owe it. Many journalists have preferred to see it as merely an information broker, and a slightly seedy or disreputable one at that, and therefore nothing like a true journalistic entity. But the trial of former U.S. Army private Bradley Manning shows why that difference (if there is one) is largely irrelevant — and why WikiLeaks and Manning deserve the support of journalists and media entities of all kinds.
Manning, who has been in U.S. custody for more than two years, is the government source who allegedly provided WikiLeaks with the “Collateral Murder” video of a U.S. military attack on civilians in Iraq, as well as tens of thousands of classified government cables, which the organization released in a massive document dump in late 2010. A number of newspapers and other mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and The Guardian, also printed some of the cables and wrote stories on them as part of a partnership arrangement with WikiLeaks.
“[The government's claim against Manning] applies to virtually every leak of classified information to any media organization, thus transforming standard whistle-blowing into the equivalent of treason.”
The conventional wisdom for some time has been that WikiLeaks was simply an intermediary — like the brown envelope that leaked documents come in, or the parking garage that Watergate mole Deep Throat used — and that newspapers and other media have performed the actual journalistic work by filtering through the cables, verifying facts, etc. During a discussion about the media and WikiLeaks in 2010, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said of founder Julian Assange: “I don’t regard him as a kindred spirit — he’s not the kind of journalist I am.”
Last summer, however, in an email interview with me after I wrote a blog post arguing that WikiLeaks should be thought of as a media entity, Keller admitted that both Assange and the organization deserve the support of all journalists — for the simple reason that an attack on WikiLeaks is effectively an attack on free speech and the free press as a whole (although Keller still didn’t want to call Assange a journalist). As the former NYT editor put it:
“I would regard an attempt to criminalize WikiLeaks’ publication of these documents as an attack on all of us, and I believe the mainstream media should come to his defense. You don’t have to embrace Julian Assange as a kindred spirit to believe that what he did in publishing those cables falls under the protection of the First Amendment.”