MU professors offer perspective on Wikileaks' latest release

The legality of the release is at the heart of the debate.
Spencer Pearson / Graphic Designer

After four-year-old, media nonprofit website WikiLeaks released government documents ranging from commentaries on national dignitaries to the Obama administration’s plans for Guantanamo Bay, the website has sparked debate among journalists and media business organizations.

Also referred to as embassy cables, these documents were obtained by WikiLeaks in November allegedly from Pvt. Bradley Manning of the U.S. Army. The site released the cables to five mainstream newspapers including The New York Times and The Guardian, a London-based newspaper. The media outlets are releasing new documents periodically throughout the week.

This execution has made some journalists, including Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director for the Organization of News Ombudsmen and former MU Professor, concerned about the effect WikiLeaks has on the future of investigative newsgathering.

“In this case, WikiLeaks let an ideological and anti-American assumption guide its motivation, which has been partly mitigated by the excellent work of the NY Times and others,” Dvorkin stated in an e-mail.

He published a post on his blog, “Now the Details,” criticizing the website for not showing any “ethical consideration” before publishing the documents and making it more difficult for reporters to get information from government sources.

“If the goal of WikiLeaks was to open up access from diplomatic circles to the public, it failed,” Dvorkin stated. “The U.S. government will likely react by going after all whistleblowers and suspect bloggers now.”

But many groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, believe punishing WikiLeaks for the release would be equal to taking legal action against mainstream media organizations when they expose government documents.

“Prosecuting WikiLeaks would be no different from prosecuting the media outlets that also published classified documents,” the ACLU stated in a news release. “Prosecuting publishers of classified information threatens investigative journalism that is necessary to an informed public debate about government conduct, and that is an unthinkable outcome.”

MU law professor Christina Wells agrees prosecuting content providers would be difficult, especially with the vitality of the Internet.

“Journalism publishing has evolved so much with the Internet that it would be impossible to stop the spread of information, even if the government legally could,” Wells stated in a news release.

Although he does not agree with WikiLeaks execution, Dvorkin pointed out how the Internet media and mainstream media can work together to inform the public.

“The bloggers are the sharp end of the newsgathering lance and the mainstream media contextualize the content,” he stated.

Although some public figures in journalism already view the WikiLeaks case as a threat, many others, including MU journalism professor Charles Davis, feel it is too early to determine the effect of the cable releases.

“I don’t think anything released so far is a threat to national security,” Davis said. “So far, (WikiLeaks) is filtering and letting (media) outlets have stuff first…they’re taking a measured approach.”

A schedule to periodically release documents over the next week is evidence that news editors at media outlets are doing some form of editing, Davis said. But he also said there is legitimate concern about whether reporters are using proper news judgment.

“The fact that we’re in possession of something does not make it newsworthy,” Davis said. “Are we really bringing meaning and context to these documents?”

Although considering WikiLeaks has collaborated with mainstream media outlets, Davis differentiates between journalists’ role and the role of the nonprofit website.

“WikiLeaks is a conduit of information that journalists then use,” he said. “Mere disclosure of information does not make them journalists. We’re sympathetic to whistleblowers, but what they did is not what we did.”

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