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How WikiLeaks has woken up journalism

December 08, 2010

By Emily Bell

If you follow the latest cache of diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks and reported by the Guardian, The New York Times and others, it is impossible not to conclude that this is a pivotal moment for journalism, its teaching and its practice. In a masterly piece on The Guardian’s website, John Naughton writes that:

"The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing."

The idea that this is the first real battleground between the political establishment and the open web is very arresting. It also forces journalists and news organizations to demonstrate to what extent they are now part of an establishment it is their duty to report. Some like the Guardian, which has a long tradition of free speech attached to it, has been at the heart of disseminating Wikileaks cablegate information.

Last summer when the Iraq War logs were made public, the Columbia Journalism Review published an account of the nuts and bolts of the collaboration between mainstream media and Wikileaks, which illustrates the type of collaborative bargaining and process behind the publishing efforts. But not all news organizations have been so keen to spread the hundreds of thousands of words.

The Wall Street Journal, for instance, has struggled to place the news from the leaked cables at all prominently in its news agenda, despite having a readership which is no doubt ferociously interested in international relations. The Journal has carried much anti-Wikileaks and anti-Julian Assange sentiment on its op-ed pages, including a plea from Mort Zuckerman to tighten cyber security, which made up in length for what it lacked in technical knowledge. And today, California Senator Dianne Feinstein again contributed to the newspaper with a suggestion that Assange be prosecuted under the Espionage Act 1917 even though a number of lawyers have already publicly noted that this would be both difficult and unlikely.

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Emily Bell is the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. This article appears in its entirety on her blog, Emily Bell(wether): An Englishwoman in New York.

*UPDATE: Prof. Todd Gitlin, chair of the school's Ph.D. program, wrote in The New Republic, "I don’t see a convincing way to feel anything other than agnostic about the impact of Wikileaks—specifically about how much damage the latest data dump will do."

Read: "Everything Is Data, but Data Isn't Everything"  and an addendum, "A Response to [Salon's] Glenn Greewald" by Gitlin.



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