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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 12/17/10

The Media Gets It Wrong on WikiLeaks: It's About Broken Trust, Not Broken Condoms

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And the government isn't stopping at shameless demagoguery, hypocrisy, and fear-mongering -- it's putting its words into action. According to The Hill, this week the House Judiciary Committee will open hearings into whether WikiLeaks has somehow violated the Espionage Act of 1917.

What's more, ABC News reports that Assange's lawyers are hearing that U.S. indictments could be forthcoming: "The American people themselves have been put at risk by these actions that are, I believe, arrogant, misguided and ultimately not helpful in any way," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "We have a very serious, active, ongoing investigation that is criminal in nature. I authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can hopefully get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable... as they should be."

For the Obama administration, it appears that accountability is a one-way street. When he had the chance to bring the principle of accountability to our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and investigate how we got into them, the president passed. As John Perry Barlow tweeted, "We have reached a point in our history where lies are protected speech and the truth is criminal."

Any process of real accountability, would, of course, also include the key role the press played in bringing us the war in Iraq. Jay Rosen, one of the participants in the symposium, wrote a brilliant essay entitled "From Judith Miller to Julian Assange." He writes:

For the portion of the American press that still looks to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers for inspiration, and that considers itself a check on state power, the hour of its greatest humiliation can, I think, be located with some precision: it happened on Sunday, September 8, 2002.

That was when the New York Times published Judith Miller and Michael Gordon's breathless, spoon-fed -- and ultimately inaccurate -- account of Iraqi attempts to buy aluminum tubes to produce fuel for a nuclear bomb.

Miller's after-the-facts-proved-wrong response, as quoted in a Michael Massing piece in the New York Review of Books, was: "My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal."

In other words, her job is to tell citizens what their government is saying, not, as Obama called for in his transparency initiative, what their government is doing. As Jay Rosen put it:

Today it is recognized at the Times and in the journalism world that Judy Miller was a bad actor who did a lot of damage and had to go. But it has never been recognized that secrecy was itself a bad actor in the events that led to the collapse, that it did a lot of damage, and parts of it might have to go. Our press has never come to terms with the ways in which it got itself on the wrong side of secrecy as the national security state swelled in size after September 11th.

And in the WikiLeaks case, much of media has again found itself on the wrong side of secrecy -- and so much of the reporting about WikiLeaks has served to obscure, to conflate, to mislead.

For instance, how many stories have you heard or read about all the cables being "dumped" in "indiscriminate" ways with no attempt to "vet" and "redact" the stories first. In truth, only just over 1,200 of the 250,000 cables have been released, and WikiLeaks is now publishing only those cables vetted and redacted by their media partners, which includes the New York Times here and the Guardian in England.

The establishment media may be part of the media, but they're also part of the establishment. And they're circling the wagons. One method they're using, as Andrew Rasiej put it after the symposium, is to conflate the secrecy that governments use to operate and the secrecy that is used to hide the truth and allow governments to mislead us.

Nobody, including WikiLeaks, is promoting the idea that government should exist in total transparency, or that, for instance, all government meetings should be live-streamed and cameras placed around the White House like a DC-based spin-off of Big Brother.

Assange himself would not disagree. "Secrecy is important for many things," he told Time's Richard Stengel. "We keep secret the identity of our sources, as an example, take great pains to do it." At the same time, however, secrecy "shouldn't be used to cover up abuses."

But the government's legitimate need for secrecy is very different from the government's desire to get away with hiding the truth. Conflating the two is dangerously unhealthy for a democracy. And this is why it's especially important to look at what WikiLeaks is actually doing, as distinct from what its critics claim it's doing.

And this is why it's also important to look at the fact that even though the cables are being published in mainstream outlets like the Times, the information first went to WikiLeaks. "You've heard of voting with your feet?" Rosen said during the symposium. "The sources are voting with their leaks. If they trusted the newspapers more, they would be going to the newspapers."

Our democracy's need for accountability transcends left and right divisions. Over at American Conservative magazine, Jack Hunter penned "The Conservative Case for WikiLeaks," writing:

Decentralizing government power, limiting it, and challenging it was the Founders' intent and these have always been core conservative principles. Conservatives should prefer an explosion of whistleblower groups like WikiLeaks to a federal government powerful enough to take them down. Government officials who now attack WikiLeaks don't fear national endangerment, they fear personal embarrassment. And while scores of conservatives have long promised to undermine or challenge the current monstrosity in Washington, D.C., it is now an organization not recognizably conservative that best undermines the political establishment and challenges its very foundations.

It is not, as Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian, the job of the media to protect the powerful from embarrassment. As I said at the symposium, its job is to play the role of the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes -- brave enough to point out what nobody else is willing to say.

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Arianna Huffington is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, a nationally syndicated columnist, and author of thirteen books. She is also co-host of "Left, Right & Center," public radio's popular political roundtable program, as (more...)
 
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