Wikileaks is a threat. We've heard it incessantly, from Democrats and Republicans, the State Department and Paypal. Some have gone so far as to call the open-publishing project a "terrorist organization."
It's true. Wikileaks is a threat. But it is not for any of the flimsy reasons we've been hearing.
The true threat of Wikileaks, and the reason it is being labeled a terrorist organization by both politicians and, disturbingly, some journalists, is not the content of its documents but the premise of its work.
Wikileaks is a "threat" because it challenges the secrecy, control and power upon which all mainstream media outlets and authoritarian regimes depend.
To understand the threat of Wikileaks, we need to step back and look at the changing media landscape. There has much hyperbolic talk about the "internet revolution" and blogs. Turn on CNN or go to any major media outlet, and they are frantically trying to find out what "The Bloggers" are doing. There is truth to some of this buzz--blogs represent a democratization of publishing, and although the most popular are about funny kittens and celebrities, there is potential here.
A limitation to this potential, though, is the fact that bloggers primarily rely on other people's reporting. Bloggers may skewer mainstream media, but they are bound to it. They hyperlink to it. For the few that are able to blog fulltime, they (mostly) still lack the time, resources, or training to break national stories. The vast majority are not calling sources, following leads, or tracking down documents: they are talking about what traditional media outlets are doing.
Meanwhile, newspapers are dwindling. Papers are downsizing. Bureaus are closing. News outlets are relying more heavily on wire content and fluff. Even top-tier dinosaur publications are struggling to create a news business model for a digital age. And as they are focused on staying alive, they are not focusing on investigative reporting.
What's truly radical about Wikileaks is that it is a completely new model of journalism. It uses the web not to distribute content, but to distribute sources.
It's to say: Here are documents. Read them. Link to them. Write whatever you want. You don't have to be a White House correspondent. You don't have to have a "Deep Throat" or other high profile source. You don't have to be a so-called "real" journalist. You can be a blogger, an activist, a student, they are all equal.
To the mainstream press, this is a threat to a career which has increasingly become more about cozying up to politicians than speaking truth to power.
To the government, this is a threat to secrecy and control.
Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has threatened to release a "poison pill" of documents if he is arrested or assassinated.
In many ways, the government and even some journalists have already swallowed that pill before he had the chance; politicians labeling Wikileaks a "terrorist organization," and reporters sickeningly labeling Wikileaks "subversion," are crystal clear indications of the power of this journalism model, and the potential it holds for holding both government and the fourth estate accountable.
UPDATE: Today the State Department proudly announced in a press release,"U.S. to Host World Press Freedom Day in 2011." Not even The Onion could have written a more Orwellian, perfectly-timed press release.