Archive for December, 2010

“First they came…” A Modern-Day Witch Hunt

I’m arming myself with some super-thick skin for the slings and arrows sure to follow. These words will result in my being called names from “sympathizer” to “traitor” to “un-American” and worse.

But I can’t stay silent any more.

For those of you who disagree — and isn’t it wonderful that we can do so freely and (hopefully) with mutual respect? — I will make it clear from the beginning that this blog post is my personal opinion, not a Society statement.

I just can’t stand by without lamenting what I see as a dangerous slippery slope that many of us are sidestepping in the name of patriotism or political correctness.

Julian Assange is no more a spy than my 77-year-old lifelong stay-at-home mother. I may disagree with his methods and philosophy, and I certainly would never publish information that would risk life or country. I know of no professional journalist who would. I am no apologist for Assange or WikiLeaks. As a journalist I have deep concerns about motivation, as I do for every source on every story.

But to call for his arrest? His execution? To charge another country’s citizen with treason to the United States? First it’s Assange, next it’s the New York Times, next it’s you or me, if we don’t toe the line on an increasingly McCarthyistic spiraling chain of events.

I’m a patriotic citizen. I’ve missed few elections in my adult life. I believe democracy represents the best governmental model. But we only feed the conspiracy theorists when a) a Swedish prosecutor drops two rape cases for lack of evidence; b) word leaks of the impending WikiLeaks data disclosures; c) a prosecutor in a different Swedish jurisdiction whose biography (according to press reports) says she specializes in “extradition work” resurrects the rape charges; d) the UK’s Independent reports “informal discussions have already taken place between U.S. and Swedish officials” over the possibility of extraditing Assange.

Under what charges? If treason doesn’t hold up, our sage leaders have come up with a cleverly worded proposed new law, the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination Act. I’m sure it’s a coincidence for the acronym to be the SHIELD Act. Not to be confused with the barely-on-life-support proposed federal Shield law that journalism groups including SPJ have been pushing hard the past two years. It would grant reporters the right to protect anonymous sources except on matters that endanger national security. That bill, passed overwhelmingly by voice vote in the House, has twisted in the wind after select senators refused to allow a vote on their floor. Now rather than a shield law to protect journalists and their sources, we get a proposed SHIELD Act that threatens our work and workers instead.

Make no mistake. The SHIELD Act, which labels anyone who disseminates classified information as a “transnational threat”, doesn’t just target the Julian Assanges of this world. That language includes anyone, source or journalist included, who publishes information the government classified, even with no national or personal security threat. Elsberg, Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee? All criminals. Some of those involved with the Valerie Plame mess might watch their backs. As should thousands of reporters and publishers who challenge some of what the government classifies merely to avoid embarrassment. And the thousands of bloggers who then re-publish. Even grandma who then emails her family repeating such information could be guilty of dissemination.

I’m reminded of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s oft-quoted passage regarding those who watched silently as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s and 1940s. “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

I’m speaking up. Already the SHIELD Act has expanded the list of classified information it would be considered criminal to publish. That list is sure to widen with time and with silence. The only shield this law would provide is one for government officials to hide increasing amounts of information from its citizens.

Mark as “Exhibit One” Sen. Joe Lieberman’s call on the Justice Department to investigate the New York Times for publishing articles based on the leaked cables. The Senate Homeland Security chairman called the stories “at least an act of bad citizenship” and possibly “a crime.” The only crime would have occurred if the Times had not vetted, confirmed, and then published information in the public interest that doesn’t endanger lives. That would have been bad citizenship and an abdication of the paper’s duty to serve as a watchdog, as set forth by our Founding Fathers.

I found it the ultimate in Orwellian-style double-speak to hear the same State Department spokesman who denounced Assange one day, announce the next day that the United States would be hosting the 2011 UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, claiming an “enduring commitment” to “the free flow of information in this digital age.” In the same breath, P.J. Crowley said, “New media has empowered citizens around the world” and “We are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals.”

That only works if the majority of individuals stay silent themselves.

Hagit Limor, an investigative reporter at WCPO-TV, is the 2010-11 SPJ President.

The consensus on WikiLeaks: there is no consensus. But consider the ethics

Correction and update [1/7/2011]: The original post noted that there had been “… 250,000 diplomatic cables posted online …” This number came from an Associated Press report. In reality, the number of cables actually posted at the time was closer to 2,000. The number was changed in this post when the author and SPJ became aware of the error. However, a full explanation or clarification regarding the correction was not added, as noted by Craig Silverman of the Columbia Journalism Review. This clarification is included now, and SPJ thanks Jay Rosen and CJR for pointing out the incorrect number and omission.

If you’re looking for consensus on WikiLeaks, don’t ask a group of journalists. Several of our committees have been batting around the ramifications all week, and we can’t even agree on the most basic question: Is WikiLeaks journalism?

Those who say “no” call WikiLeaks a source, a conduit, a whistleblower. They call the 2,000 diplomatic cables posted online a data-dump without filters, fact-checking or context from other sources. They say there’s no original reporting, hence the need for established media partners to get out the word.

Others point to WikiLeaks’ own website detailing its process “to get the unvarnished truth out to the public.” The site claims its own employees verify material “of significance to society” and claims to have developed a “harm minimisation (sic) procedure” to remove or delay identifying details “to protect life and limb of innocent people.”

Seeking truth and minimizing harm echo the first two tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Only Julian Assange and company know if WikiLeaks followed these stated procedures or recklessly exercised little or no judgment before unleashing the storm.

To me, whether what we just witnessed defines “journalism” shouldn’t be the question perplexing this Society — or this society.

First and foremost, I don’t believe we should be in the business of defining journalism any more than we want to define who is a journalist. These are epic times in the redefinition of information-gathering and sharing. To exclude any format will define us as the fools of tomorrow.

Further, the question of whether WikiLeaks is journalism matters not a whit to the general public. They don’t care what we call it, from aggregator to middleman to source to blogger to journalist. The world audience just wants information.

And let’s be honest here. There’s no questioning the journalistic value of this information. We now know that China might agree to a reunified Korea, that more Middle East countries are concerned about Iranian nukes than have admitted publicly, that the Obama administration tried some heavy-handed incentives to get other countries to take Guantanamo detainees.

Nothing I’ve read rises to the level of endangering lives. Treason? Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates minimizes the potential harm, saying the disclosures may be embarrassing but of “modest” consequence to U.S. foreign policy.

In my book, the government should bypass the messenger and look within its own glass house. If there was treason, it lies within. It starts with a system that allows an Army private to access classified information.

No, the real question all of us should be asking has nothing to do with the content of the information, but rather the process of gathering it. It’s not about format or who does the publishing. It’s about the decision-making that leads to publication.

That’s what defines professional journalism. It’s not the paycheck. It’s not the type of employer. It’s the tool-gathering skill set. It’s the knowledge to verify and test for accuracy, to provide context via other sources and to provide opportunity for the subjects to respond. It’s about acting responsibly, recognizing the potential harm in the information and vetting it to ensure safety of person and security of government.

That’s the question we should all be discussing, the same question every person and outlet disseminating information should consider. I don’t care who you are or what you call yourself, if you’re not applying these principles, you’re not a journalist. That’s where I feel comfortable defining the word.

In recent months, some have urged SPJ to update our ethics code, and we’re looking into that. But cases like WikiLeaks demonstrate how the code as it exists covers the most controversial of journalistic questions.

So we’re left with what else the code says. These are the parts some might quibble with Assange and WikiLeaks: Be accountable. (Harder to do while you’re in hiding.) Question motives, not only of the alleged Army source but of WikiLeaks itself. As the code says: “Pursuit of truth is not a license for arrogance.”

WikiLeaks provides an opportunity to reaffirm what SPJ believes. First and foremost, we’re a First Amendment organization. We believe in the right to publish truthful information in the public interest. We’re about open government. But we also believe in considerations of harm. As citizens, it’s in our interest that national security stands. Unfortunately, governments sometimes use secrecy to hide what should shine in the light of day. It is these abuses we expose in our role as watchdogs. That is why we’ve gone to bat for leakers and whistleblowers in the past, after we’ve vetted and confirmed their information, of course.

Some outside SPJ have called on us to draw a moral line in the sand between whistleblower and aide to the enemy. We do so every day where lives depend on the line. That’s where responsible journalists consider and make the tough decisions whether and what to publish. Issues that simply “embarrass” the government don’t cross the line.

Others inside SPJ have called on us to distinguish professional journalism from what WikiLeaks just did. The answer lies in what standards the site used. Had PFC Bradley Manning allegedly leaked the information to mainstream media, would we be asking the same question? Or would we be lauding the scoop? Glass houses, everyone.

Perhaps WikiLeaks sought out professional partners because Assange of all people realizes the truth of his site’s limitation: a lack of credibility whether real or imagined. That’s something from which you can’t hide. You earn it over time. You earn it doing the hard work, applying the principles of good, ethical journalism the world can believe.


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