Rabble Rousing: The Wikileaks “Threat”

The furor that has arisen surrounding this week’s massive exposure of sensitive documents by Wikileaks has been utterly amazing, but admittedly not surprising. The documents, pertaining to the Afghan war, are field-level reports from the US military, and shed a light on the conflict that the military and government most likely don’t want to have shed. Whether they are documents that the public deserves to see is a question largely lost within the greater outrage at Wikileaks having released them; it’s not about whether the information should have been made public, but rather that they were.

This really raises the question about the value of “citizen journalism” as they call it. The debate was joined by a pretty abrupt and brash voice today as Eric Morse, a former Canadian Diplomat, wrote today in the Ottawa Citizen that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has every reason to be afraid today, and that the public should just trust the government and mainstream media, because they are the professionals. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m not a trusting person, and Morse’s assessment of Julian Assange’s predicament came across as a not so subtly veiled threat, I might have been swayed to consider it.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the information leaked. I won’t, for two reasons: first, I haven’t read it myself, and second, I am not a subject-matter expert on the particulars contained in the reports. What’s really important here is the issue of information, and access to it, and whether there should only be certain channels allowed to distribute information to the public. Evidently, from Eric Morse’s comments, we should also be asking what is considered the appropriate response to the wrong people distributing information, as well.

As an educated person and someone interested in being involved in the world I live in, I understand the value of information intimately. As a person who has studied ethics and propaganda, as well, I understand that information can be dangerous as well as beneficial. It’s really not so cut and dry as “everyone should know everything” and that information from one source should be taken at the same value as information from another. Conveying information is an act of language, and language as well as its use is an imperfect thing.

I wholeheartedly disagree with Morse’s assertion that “it is the conceit of the age that ‘citizen journalists’ — including the anonymous volunteers who helped ‘edit’ the heap — are far more trustworthy than any ‘mainstream’ media.” The issue isn’t really whether citizen journalists are more trustworthy, it’s whether we should be considering the mainstream media trustworthy. Casting aspersions on one does not vindicate the other.

The fact is that without any great amount of study and research, it isn’t difficult to find out that the mainstream media is suject to corporate ownership. In fact, all of the media outlets and sources in Canada are owned by a very small number of major corporations. Some newspapers, for instance, do a fairly good job of remaining tone-neutral in their reporting, but for the most part the slant put on the news reported carries the distinct flavour of the politics of the parent company. And, it’s not just a Hollywood fiction that governments and lobby groups exert an enormous amount of influence on what does and does not make it to print.

Morse admits that governments do “sometimes” lie, and the media do have agendas. Bravo, for admitting to the obvious. But, let’s not make light of that admission. It’s not that infrequent that governments lie, particularly if you allow into the category the various careful misdirections and omissions of fact that are the patent trade of politics. The US went to war the first time in Iraq because of a professionally constructed fiction about incubator babies in Kuwait being dumped on the floor to die by Saddam’s troops. They even went so far as to have the daughter of a Kuwaiti politician pose as a young nurse from a hospital in Kuwait to give testimony to the atrocities that she had seen. All of this orchestrated for the mainstream media by a PR company employed by the government. All of this is verifiable fact.

See also Iraq war II. See also Vietnam. Etc, etc.

So governments do lie, and frequently. And, the media does have an agenda, corporate or otherwise. And, if a government is willing to lie, and has the ability to exert influence on the media to control what information is released, it doesn’t take a real talent for logic to be able to conclude that the government will use the media carefully to get the message across that they want, or to suppress the message they don’t want.

So-called “citizen journalists” generally have agendas as well. Their agenda is usually either to be heard, to gain fame, or to take a shot against someone or some cause that they disagree with. Again, this doesn’t necessarily discredit them or what they broadcast. Nor will I argue that they have access to the same facilities, people and fact checking that bigger organizations have. There is value to what they represent because you get a more raw and generally unslanted take on the information they release due to the fact that they don’t have the fetters that the big organizations do. But, it is “buyer beware.”

Implying that the only media that should be trusted is big media, as Eric Morse’s article suggests, is short sighted, overly simplistic, and dangerous. Morse draws a parallel between the Internet and information freedom and a plague agent, which is utterly stupid. There was once a time when the ability to read was kept exclusive to the ruling class and the clergy, because it was deemed that controlling the dissemination of information was the best prophilactic against tampering with the government or church’s agenda. The church felt that the only people who should be able to read the bible were the clergy, and that everyone else needed to have it “interpreted” for them. That concept isn’t all that far from what Morse is suggesting about the media and access to information, and I’d like to think we’ve grown farther away from the dark ages than that.

Most disturbing of all is the almost glib, dark innuendo Morse uses to issue the threat that Assange has every reason to fear reprisals for this massive leak. “Some of those paying attention are not people or organizations one would wish to stir up in the normal course of events,” he writes, and later that Assange “will have to accelerate his nomadic existence to avoid that spanking — which when it comes might well be tipped with any of several interesting substances.” Is that really the world we live in? Is that really acceptable to us? Does releasing an unslanted, unfiltered view of our activities in a conflict in a foreign land really justify death threats against the individual who leaked it?

If the information is that terribly disruptive, embarassing or potentially ill-received by the public, what does that say about the activities it outlines? Nothing we hear should be all that explosive or embarassing, and little of it should be any sort of a surprise, if our government isn’t lying to us and the media is faithfully reporting facts.

It’s probably embarassing for the media and the government to have it made so publicly obvious that they have been playing games with their constituents, and that’s why they’re angry. And, I have little enough faith in the ability of the average person to look at anything critically enough and ask enough questions for raw information to not be somewhat dangerous, which is the real threat of citizen journalism. But, it’s important that there be some mechanism to police the activities of our governments and the media, and that mechanism seems best to be a vibrant, healthy and active back-channel of information. Maybe our leaders and the people who report on them will be a little more careful not to stray too far from the facts if they know that someone is very likely to let the unaltered facts slip.

Well, I did say maybe. Remember, I’m not very trusting, and some I trust less than others.


The Ottawa Citizen, Eric Morse, “Weak Leaks”

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2 comments so far

While I agree that the not so subtle threats in the editorial were uncalled for and the unsophisticated tactics of a schoolyard bully, there is a lot that has been left out of discussion above.

First: What is the real issue: access to facts, access to information, or government(s) telling the truth. The article above seems to strongly suggest that by not reporting on something, an entity is automatically lying by omission. After re-reading the editorial, and articles since then from a wide spectrum of sources, I would posit that the real flurry is that the “facts” released did two things: put the lives of soldiers in the field in danger, and provided significant data to suggest that the story/reports on Afghanistan are missing significant pieces. This leads me to believe the public on one side is cheesed about being lied to, and officials on the other side are extremely upset that someone broke a trust/oath/confidence in order to have the information released. Further, the information itself can be damaging, but it is the message in disclosing sensitive information/data in this manner that is the real issue: trust has been lost. Feeling betrayed, (whether rightly or wrongly) never brings out the best in anyone, or any organization.

Second: since when do “citizen” journalists provide information that is “unslanted”? Simply by releasing this information they have to a great extent spoken, and are providing a view. To your earlier point regarding how information, and more formaly news is reported, it may not be “corporate” politics that decides, but there are definitely politics involved, and ergo, a slant.

Third: policing government and mainstream media-having “back channel” access to information doesn’t seem a very effective way to police anything.. perhaps oversight or opportunity to critique may come closer. If we are at the stage of having to watch the watcher…things are a lot grimmer than they appear on the surface. Of course, Canadian media has been having a field day with the decisions of the current government, and what those decisions might mean.

Fourth: what is interesting is that there is no reference to additional channels available to media, lobbyists, and Canadians with respect to accessing information. I cannot defend the process as perfect, far from it, but there are a number of ways that issues/information/concerns can be put on the public agenda which are not discussed at all. i.e. ATI request.

Ultimately, what I believe is important is that a multitude of information sources are available and accessible to the general public. As anyone who has conducted research is aware, relying on one source of data is a very bad idea, whether you are preparing an article for a journal, or making decisions about what political party to support.

A Knight
July 31st, 2010 at 1:43 am

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