Ever since WikiLeaks first emerged on the scene in 2010, there has been a debate about whether the organization should qualify as a media entity, and if so what duty we owe it. Many journalists have preferred to see it as merely an information broker, and a slightly seedy or disreputable one at that, and therefore nothing like a true journalistic entity. But the trial of former U.S. Army private Bradley Manning shows why that difference (if there is one) is largely irrelevant — and why WikiLeaks and Manning deserve the support of journalists and media entities of all kinds.
Manning, who has been in U.S. custody for more than two years, is the government source who allegedly provided WikiLeaks with the “Collateral Murder” video of a U.S. military attack on civilians in Iraq, as well as tens of thousands of classified government cables, which the organization released in a massive document dump in late 2010. A number of newspapers and other mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and The Guardian, also printed some of the cables and wrote stories on them as part of a partnership arrangement with WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks is a media entity in every way that matters
As Glenn Greenwald points out in a post at The Guardian, the military prosecutor in Manning’s trial has provided one of the best justifications for seeing WikiLeaks as a media entity, and therefore deserving of the same protections as a newspaper. In court on Thursday, Captain Angel Overgaard was asked whether Manning would be on trial if he had delivered the same classified information to the New York Times, and the prosecutor said simply: “Yes ma’am.” In other words, for the purposes of the government, WikiLeaks and the NYT are interchangeable. As Greenwald describes it:
“[The government’s claim against Manning] applies to virtually every leak of classified information to any media organization, thus transforming standard whistle-blowing into the equivalent of treason.”
The conventional wisdom for some time has been that WikiLeaks was simply an intermediary — like the brown envelope that leaked documents come in, or the parking garage that Watergate mole Deep Throat used — and that newspapers and other media have performed the actual journalistic work by filtering through the cables, verifying facts, etc. During a discussion about the media and WikiLeaks in 2010, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said of founder Julian Assange: “I don’t regard him as a kindred spirit — he’s not the kind of journalist I am.”
Last summer, however, in an email interview with me after I wrote a blog post arguing that WikiLeaks should be thought of as a media entity, Keller admitted that both Assange and the organization deserve the support of all journalists — for the simple reason that an attack on WikiLeaks is effectively an attack on free speech and the free press as a whole (although Keller still didn’t want to call Assange a journalist). As the former NYT editor put it:
“I would regard an attempt to criminalize WikiLeaks’ publication of these documents as an attack on all of us, and I believe the mainstream media should come to his defense. You don’t have to embrace Julian Assange as a kindred spirit to believe that what he did in publishing those cables falls under the protection of the First Amendment.”
The media could be the next target
The risk isn’t just that the government will apply the same tactics or rationale to other leakers that it has to Bradley Manning, even if they leak documents to the New York Times — the real risk is that seeing the NYT and other outlets as equivalent to WikiLeaks will encourage the government to try and prosecute them as well, just as the State Department is trying to pursue Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for what it believes to be their acts of espionage.
This is more than just idle speculation: the blog post Bill Keller was responding to when he emailed me was about a discussion that took place in Congress, in which several legislators asked legal experts who were giving testimony to the House judiciary subcommittee whether there was a legal rationale for prosecuting media outlets like the New York Times under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information the way WikiLeaks did.
This may be far-fetched, but identifying the New York Times and WikiLeaks as equivalent is a clear step in that direction. If Manning providing documents to the former counts as treason, because this is defined as “aiding and abetting the enemy,” then how is a someone providing data to the New York Times any different? Or for that matter, a senior member of the national security establishment giving documents to Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward, as Greenwald notes in his piece?
The justification for supporting WikiLeaks’ rights as a journalistic entity seems clear: as Benjamin Franklin said, “We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”