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Summary:

When WikiLeaks first appeared on the scene, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller made it clear that he did not consider leader Julian Assange a journalist, or WikiLeaks a journalistic entity. Based on some recent comments, however, Keller’s view may be changing — slowly.

WikiLeaks' leader Julian Assange

WikiLeaks' leader Julian Assange

When WikiLeaks exploded into public view last year, with its release of a classified Iraqi war video and then thousands of documents relating to the war in Afghanistan, the response from traditional media outlets — and in particular from the New York Times — was very interesting. Although the Times worked closely with WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange in order to get access to and report on the documents, executive editor Bill Keller made it clear that he did not consider Assange a journalist, nor did he think of WikiLeaks as being in any way a journalistic entity. Based on some comments that Keller made at a symposium at Columbia University on Thursday, however, he may be changing his mind.

In his recently released e-book about dealing with WikiLeaks, which was excerpted in the New York Times magazine, the executive editor makes it clear that he considered the WikiLeaks founder just a source like any other, not a journalistic colleague, and said that he would “hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism.” In December, Keller seemed to come close to admitting that WikiLeaks might be practicing something approaching journalism, when he told a Nieman Foundation event that the organization was doing things in a “more journalistic fashion.” But he added that it still wasn’t “my kind of news organization,” and that if Assange was acting as a journalist, “I don’t regard him as a kindred spirit — he’s not the kind of journalist I am.”

At a symposium yesterday at the Columbia School of Journalism, however — where Keller appeared along with Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger and Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School and former assistant attorney general, in a panel moderated by Emily Bell of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism — the Times editor all but acknowledged that WikiLeaks is a journalistic entity, when he said that he did not support the U.S. Department of Justice’s attempts to build a case against Assange under the Espionage Act. According to Wired’s version of the event, Keller said:

It’s very hard to conceive of a prosecution of Julian Assange that wouldn’t stretch the law to be applicable to us. Whatever one thinks of Julian Assange… journalists should feel a sense of alarm at any legal action that intends to punish Assange for doing what journalists do.

It’s nice to see that the NYT’s executive editor is — however reluctantly — coming around to the view that we have been arguing for some time: namely, that WikiLeaks is effectively a media entity, and that what it does qualifies as journalism (the faculty of Columbia’s School of Journalism clearly believes this as well, even if Keller doesn’t yet). It may not be the kind of journalism that the New York Times engages in, but it clearly has a role to play in the expanded media ecosystem we see emerging around us. And the fact that WikiLeaks is effectively a stateless entity (the “first stateless news organization,” NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has called it) is a crucial part of that role, media analyst Clay Shirky argues in a recent piece for The Guardian.

Because this tension between governments and leakers is so important, and because WikiLeaks so dramatically helps leakers, it isn’t just a new entrant in the existing media landscape. Its arrival creates a new landscape.

Because WikiLeaks is “headquartered on the web,” Shirky says, no single country or government can shut it down. Even if Assange is eventually prosecuted or removed in some way as the head of the organization, as early supporter and Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir described it in a speech recently, “a thousand more heads will come out.” In fact, as Shirky notes, that is already happening — Al-Jazeera and The Guardian formed a partnership to release thousands of documents about the relationship between Israel and Palestine (now being called the “Palestine Papers”), and former WikiLeaks staffer Daniel Domscheit-Berg has launched an entity called OpenLeaks. Meanwhile, the New York Times has talked about possibly creating its own digital tip box where sources could leak documents instead of sending them to WikiLeaks.

Whether Bill Keller likes it or not, the tools of journalism have been set loose from the control of entities like the New York Times or The Guardian. Anyone can effectively become a publisher now, and that includes WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks and anyone who makes use of similar tools — just as people who find themselves in the central square in Cairo or Tunisia can behave as journalists if they wish to. That’s an important phenomenon, and it would be nice to see the NYT editor come right out and admit that it is happening, rather than continuing to dance around the implications.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Rosauro Ochoa

  1. Lucian Armasu Friday, February 4, 2011

    If Assange is “not the kind of journalist” he is, the way bloggers are not the kind of journalists he is, then that doesn’t really matter, does it?

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  2. Keller was eviscerated in the comments section of his article. Denying that Assange is a journalist was seen as a stab in the back to a man who needs 4th estate rights to prevent himself being prosecuted. And trashing a source of such good scoop was – well- trashy. The readers were incredibly – and in my view quite rightly – cynical about Keller’s motives. I’m not sure I’m a true believer in what Assange is doing if in fact low level informants were named in the Afghan papers. But whatever Keller is selling, I’m not buying.

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    1. Yes, I agree — Keller’s portrayal of Assange is quite remarkable in how mean-spirited it is. I can’t think of another case in which a senior editor of a major media outlet has gone after a “source” in such a way. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. What is journalism? First definition by Merriam-Webster online unabridged: 1 a : the collection and editing of material of current interest for presentation through the media of newspapers, magazines, newsreels, radio, or television [note that it doesn't include "Internet"... just a little behind the time]

    By this definition alone WikiLeaks is practicing journalism through its collection from anonymous sources and reviewing/editing for publication on the Internet the information it receives. I sense a certain jealousy in those traditional media journalists who contend that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are not one of “them”.

    The fact that the information that WikiLeaks has been providing is about governments and/or its corporate compadres that the individuals involved do not want known, does not in anyway make that provision less than journalism. The only difference in many cases is that the raw documents are made available, something that many (?most?) traditional journalists are reluctant to do. Instead they put their own “stamp” on it, sometimes in the way of interpretations that critically evaluating readers of the raw data may or may not conclude.

    It appears to me that Julian Assange and his co-WikiLeaks publishers are giving more credit to individual assessors of the documents being released than many (again, most?) traditional journalists (and their editors) do with regard to their readers.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Kitty — great points.

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  4. [2nd attempt - in parts]
    What is journalism? First definition by Merriam-Webster online unabridged: 1 a : the collection and editing of material of current interest for presentation through the media of newspapers, magazines, newsreels, radio, or television [note that it doesn't include "Internet"... just a little behind the time]

    By this definition alone WikiLeaks is practicing journalism through its collection from anonymous sources and reviewing/editing for publication on the Internet the information it receives. I sense a certain jealousy in those traditional media journalists who contend that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are not one of “them”.

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  5. [...] the original post: NYT's Keller Almost Ready to Admit WikiLeaks Is Journalism: Tech … Share and [...]

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  6. Assange has admittedly co-conspired to obtain and print classified documents. He is NOT a journalist, regardless of any claims by anyone to the contrary. In a recent interview for TV he SAID he did not encourage the theft of such documents, but the fact that he willingly publishes / has published such documents is all the encouragement the so-called whistle-blowers need. He holds the smoking gun.

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    1. > He holds the smoking gun.

      The smoking gun of how governments abuse their powers.

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    2. Are you kidding? Any newspaper in the world would be willing to publish juicy stories based on documents they receive which reveal newsworthy behavior. The difference is that WikiLeaks doesn’t have a corporate master to bow to when it comes to what it publishes. It is the ultimate free-press.

      With the existence of WikiLeaks governments have to either respond with the oppression that they are capable of and show the world that they will abuse power willingly and openly OR they will need to simply accept that the eyes of the world are on them and tighten up their behavior and their security.

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  7. [...] osserva Mathew Ingram su Gigaom in un articolo che ricorda le posizioni inizialmente molto scettiche di Keller  (alla fine è ‘’una fonte [...]

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  8. WikiLeaks is first draft journalism in much the same way that C-Span is. What gives MSM journalists hives is the Assange-factor: a somewhat opaque and highly polemicized self-promoter who may just be more open about his political attitudes than others. As journalism strives to deal with allegations of bias, Assange comes out and says that he actually DOES have an agenda. That is unfortunate, but MSM needs to figure out a way that this odd and somewhat insecure messenger does not distort the message.

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    1. Great point, Jeff — thanks for the comment.

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  9. [...]  Re: Wikileaks: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller edged toward defining WikiLeaks as something a lot like journalism, The Nation’s Greg Mitchell explained why the mainstream [...]

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  10. [...] and free, apparently it is fine for the U.S. government to persecute a web-based publisher that is widely viewed as a journalistic entity, and is run by someone who isn’t even an American [...]

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