Do You Publish?

Published: December 3, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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“An organization has obtained secret documents. They are newsworthy, but they could be damaging as well, to national interests and individuals.

“Do you publish?”

That was the opening to a Wall Street Journal article (Nov. 29) discussing the question placed before several major news organizations, including the Journal, last week when WikiLeaks, an organization devoted to publishing via the Internet and a variety of other media outlets, distributed more than 250,000 confidential U.S. embassy documents.

In looking for their own answer, the Journal turned to “Anthony E. Varona, professor and associate dean at American University-Washington College of Law, [who] said [that] the line is still unclear between ‘giving the public the news it has a First Amendment right to receive and serving as instruments of lawlessness.

“‘The bottom line is whether publication by WikiLeaks, with amplification by the traditional news media, will advance the public interest and the First Amendment or threaten their very existence,’ Mr. Varona said. ‘The next several days will reveal much along these lines.’”

“Bob Steele, the director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, said that citizens had a right to hold government accountable. ‘That relates to the product of government and the process of government and what government leaders do and how they go about doing it,’ he said.

However, Steele added that “there is potentially greater danger in the release of documents that address ongoing and sensitive negotiations and operations.”

On their Web site it reads, “WikiLeaks has combined high-end security technologies with journalism and ethical principles.”  Yet, they offer no specifics as to what those principles are other than the fact that they clearly support free speech.

Watergate reporter Bob Woodward told Larry King (Nov. 30), “I think the dilemma here is the scale. 250,000 documents… The kind of massive publication of it, I have to label mindless. How can anyone figure out what it means…?  I do agree with Secretary Clinton… If you’re just going to put it all out and not check with the government or sources that you can trust, you may get somebody killed and actually end very important operations that this country is involved in. It is clearly a dangerous time.”

The two vital points that Woodward brings up tell us a lot about his own standards.  You need to check with “sources that you can trust,” as in, more than one source on the information.  And with the massive amount of information being released about on-going operations, how do you know that you won’t get somebody killed or placed in a dangerous position, not to mention the potential loss of diplomatic respect.

As I pointed out last Wednesday in one of my questions to the New York Times, where is the harm in waiting to obtain additional sources and background information so as to provide clarity and context to the overall story?

The sudden and deliberate release of 250,000 documents detailing thoughts and attitudes may be comparable to my posting a video on YouTube detailing a fire deliberately set by my next door neighbor.  We see a lot flames, hear a lot of commotion, but a wider angle might reveal my neighbor in the middle of grilling a couple of steaks on his barbeque.

The story behind the documents clearly sounds like a story that needs to be told, but without a broader context we all become lost in a “mindless” maze of paper that may, at the end of the day, cause serious damage to the country.

On December 1, The Associated Press wrote that, “Amazon.com Inc. forced WikiLeaks to stop using the U.S. Company’s computers to distribute embarrassing State Department communications and other documents, WikiLeaks said Wednesday.

“The ouster came after congressional staff had questioned Amazon about its relationship with WikiLeaks, said Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut.  WikiLeaks confirmed it hours after The Associated Press reported that Amazon’s servers had stopped hosting WikiLeaks’ site. The site was unavailable for several hours before it moved back to its previous Swedish host, Bahnhof.”

“Justice is in your hands now,” reads a “wallpaper” download available on the WikiLeaks site.  It’s an odd phrase considering that it is founder Julian Assange who seems to be determining justice and how it is handled.

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