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And, yes, I DO take it personally: Jay Rosen's take on the Wikileaks Afghan document dump
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Monday, July 26, 2010

Jay Rosen's take on the Wikileaks Afghan document dump

some very insightful comments...

1. Ask yourself: Why didn’t Wikileaks just publish the Afghanistan war logs and let journalists ‘round the world have at them? Why hand them over to The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first? Because as Julien Assange, founder of Wikileaks, explained last October, if a big story is available to everyone equally, journalists will pass on it.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he said then. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”

2. The initial response from the White House was extremely unimpressive:

  • This leak will harm national security. (As if those words still had some kind of magical power, after all the abuse they have been party to.)
  • There’s nothing new here. (Then how could the release harm national security?)
  • Wikileaks is irresponsible; they didn’t even try to contact us! (Hold on: you’re hunting the guy down and you’re outraged that he didn’t contact you?)
  • Wikileaks is against the war in Afghanistan; they’re not an objective news source. (So does that mean the documents they published are fake?)
  • “The period of time covered in these documents… is before the President announced his new strategy. Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy.” (Okay, so now we too know the basis for the President’s decision: and that’s a bad thing?)

4. If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that. (Dave Winer in the comments: “The blogosphere is a stateless news organization.”) Wikileaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system. That’s what so odd about the White House crying, “They didn’t even contact us!”

Appealing to national traditions of fair play in the conduct of news reporting misunderstands what Wikileaks is about: the release of information without regard for national interest. In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.


7. If you’re a whistle blower with explosive documents, to whom would you rather give them? A newspaper with a terrestrial address organized under the laws of a nation that could try to force the reporter you contacted to reveal your name, and that may or may not run the documents you’ve delivered to them online…. or Wikileaks, which has no address, answers no subpoenas and promises to run the full cache if they can be verified as real? (And they’re expert in encryption, too.)

Also, can we agree that a news organization with a paywall wouldn’t even be in contention?

8. I’ve been trying to write about this observation for a while, but haven’t found the means to express it. So I am just going to state it, in what I admit is speculative form. Here’s what I said on Twitter Sunday: “We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget.

Last week, it was the Washington Post’s big series, Top Secret America, two years in the making. It reported on the massive security shadowland that has arisen since 09/11. The Post basically showed that there is no accountability, no knowledge at the center of what the system as a whole is doing, and too much “product” to make intelligent use of. We’re wasting billions upon billions of dollars on an intelligence system that does not work. It’s an explosive finding but the explosive reactions haven’t followed, not because the series didn’t do its job, but rather: the job of fixing what is broken would break the system responsible for such fixes.

The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works… and often fails to work?

seems to me that wikileaks is irretrievably altering the paradigm of the news media both here in the u.s. and around the world... that can't be a bad thing...

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