Corporations and politicians have been assaulting journalists and journalism with the full force of their political and financial fury during the past two decades. For a time, a prostitute was invited to pose as a journalist in the sanctum sanctorum of U.S. journalism, the White House press room.
And so journalism declined.
The Federal Trade Commission, worried about the decline, considered trying to stop it by subsidizing newspapers, a move that many on both the left and right said confused “newspapers with journalism.”
In fact, there are journalists, but they no longer work for newspapers, and news is no longer broken by newspapers. News breaks on the internet.
At a recent symposium that I covered here, Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler said that the broadcasters’ and newspapers’ eagerness to ask the Obama adminstration for permission to publish the Wikileaks story means that they will never break important news in the future. “The next Ellsberg will not risk his career and liberty to go to The New York Times. The whistleblower will publish on the internet and the media will report on it.”
Leaks are inevitable in the future, as The Economist recently noted. These leaks will no longer be screened by the editorial function of newspapers but will instead be dumped. The raw data will be available to everyone on the internet.
Some are arguing for a fascist response, and others hope that future leaks harm the powers that be. As the Economist article cited above noted, “Some of us wish to encourage in individuals the sense of justice which would embolden them to challenge the institutions that control our fate by bringing their secrets to light. Some of us wish to encourage in individuals ever greater fealty and submission to corporations and the state in order to protect the privileges and prerogatives of the powerful, lest their erosion threaten what David Brooks calls ‘the fragile community’ — our current, comfortable dispensation.”
In a separate article, The Economist argued that the U.S. government should accept current and future wikileaks, arguing for prosecution but not for persecution:
Calling Mr Assange a terrorist, for example, is deeply counterproductive. His cyber-troops do not fly planes into buildings, throw acid at schoolgirls or murder apostates. Indeed, the few genuine similarities between WikiLeaks and the Taliban—its elusiveness and its wide base of support—argue against ill-judged attacks that merely broaden that support. After a week of clumsy American-inspired attempts to shut WikiLeaks down, it is now hosted on more than 700 servers around the world.
The big danger is that America is provoked into bending or breaking its own rules, straining alliances, eroding credibility and — because it will not be able to muzzle WikiLeaks — ultimately seeming impotent. In recent years America has promoted the internet as a menace to foreign censorship. That sounds tinny now. So did its joy of hosting next year’s World Press Freedom Day this week. Chinese and Russian glee at American discomfort are a sure sign of such missteps.
The best lessons to bear in mind are those learned in such costly fashion during the past decade of the “war on terror”. Deal with the source of the problem, not just its symptoms. Keep the moral high ground. And pick fights you can win.
One thing is certain: the newspapers will no longer insulate governments and corporations from the consequences of the revelation of secrets.