question of the day: Is what Wikileaks does journalism?

Sorry if it seems I’m obsessed with Julian Assange and Wikileaks, but I do think this may well be the most important issue of the moment, because what happens as a result of it will impact how our society will discuss everything else: either entirely freely, or fettered by corporate and governmental constraints.

Is what Wikileaks does journalism?

Mathew Ingram asks this controversial (to some) question at GigaOm, and beginning thusly:

While the U.S. government tries to determine whether what WikiLeaks and front-man Julian Assange have done qualifies as espionage, media theorists and critics alike continue to debate whether releasing those classified diplomatic cables qualifies as journalism. It’s more than just an academic question — if it is journalism in some sense, then Assange and WikiLeaks should be protected by the First Amendment and freedom of the press.

Well, actually, that last bit isn’t quite right. The First Amendment doesn’t apply only to journalistic entities but to everyone under American law, so it doesn’t matter whether Wikileaks is doing journalism or not… although, even if you want to think about the First Amendment that way, consider this (from Ingram’s subsequently summarizing of a recent Twitter debate over this issue):

Tim Carmody argued that the principle of freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment was designed to protect individuals who published pamphlets and handed them out in the street just as much as it was to protect large media entities…

True. But even that doesn’t matter, as Wikileaks does not operate on American soil, and hence the First Amendment does not apply to it any more than it applies to, say, Paris Match. But imagine Washington DC pressuring Visa to stop processing subscription payments for Paris Match because the magazine published a story that embarrassed the White House. Imagine a sitting U.S. senator pressuring Amazon to boot the Web site of Paris Match off its server. If such things can happen to Wikileaks, is it really much of a step to see the same happen to Paris Match or some other non-U.S-based media outlet?

More from Ingram’s summary:

Aaron Bady made a point that I have tried to make as well, which is that it’s difficult to criminalize what WikiLeaks has done without also making a criminal out of the New York Times.

That’s a more salient point. But perhaps the most pertinent thing Ingram has to say is this:

The fact that no one can seem to agree on this question emphasizes just how deeply the media and journalism have been disrupted, to the point where we aren’t even sure what they are any more.

For an intriguing side note to the question of whether Wikileaks is doing journalism or not, see this piece by Glenn Greenwald at Salon about how an editorial employee of Wired — an entity about which no one would even begin to conceive of asking whether it is doing journalism — is behaving in a most unjournalistic way:

For more than six months, Wired‘s Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen has possessed — but refuses to publish — the key evidence in one of the year’s most significant political stories: the arrest of U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning for allegedly acting as WikiLeaks’ source. In late May, Adrian Lamo — at the same time he was working with the FBI as a government informant against Manning — gave Poulsen what he purported to be the full chat logs between Manning and Lamo in which the Army Private allegedly confessed to having been the source for the various cables, documents and video that WikiLeaks released throughout this year. In interviews with me in June, both Poulsen and Lamo confirmed that Lamo placed no substantive restrictions on Poulsen with regard to the chat logs: Wired was and remains free to publish the logs in their entirety.

Despite that, on June 10, Wired published what it said was only “about 25 percent” of those logs, excerpts that it hand-picked. For the last six months, Poulsen has not only steadfastly refused to release any further excerpts, but worse, has refused to answer questions about what those logs do and do not contain. This is easily one of the worst journalistic disgraces of the year: it is just inconceivable that someone who claims to be a “journalist” — or who wants to be regarded as one — would actively conceal from the public, for months on end, the key evidence in a political story that has generated headlines around the world.

(There’s much more from Greenwald, including lots of links and tons of analysis.)

No wonder people are confused. The supposed mainstream media — and I don’t mean just Wired — falls down doing its watchdog duties, yet still are given the benefit of the doubt, while Wikileaks, in taking up that forgotten mantle, is castigated for doing what journalism is supposed to be doing: speaking truth to power.

You can see on which side of the question I fall. What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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