WikiLeaks Leaves Old Media Uncertain Whether It's Coming or Going

Last Updated May 25, 2011 3:02 PM EDT

Even as a grand jury hearing decides whether to indict Julian Assange for espionage, both WikiLeaks and its founder keep making headlines, whether through leaked material on the site or negative revelations about the organization and its operations. A Frontline documentary cranked the spotlight up even hotter with charges that Assange didn't want to redact names of people mentioned in the U.S. diplomatic cables, calling them "informants" who "deserved to die."

The controversy continued the debate over whether WikiLeaks is really a journalistic organization. But it equally raises a different question: Is it time for journalism to change some hidebound traditions that limit its future? As uncomfortable as WikiLeaks makes mainstream media companies, news executives badly want the information and bigger audiences the Internet offers. They're just wary of the online culture of radical openness and full disclosure that doesn't automatically make them the center of attention. Reconciling all that will require a major change in how they interact with the world.

Story goldmine
The leaked U.S. diplomatic cables generated one jaw-dropping headline after another. The latest: an allegation that Pakistan's military actively teaches anti-American attitudes to its officers, according to a report by Dawn.com:

The cable primarily documents the account of a US army officer, Col Michael Schleicher, who attended a course at NDU. The comments by Col Schleicher partly appear to corroborate the views expressed by Ms Patterson, but in many places also evince a great of naivety about Pakistani society and the security apparatus."The senior level instructors had misperceptions about US policies and culture and infused their lectures with these suspicions, while the students share these misconceptions with their superiors despite having children who attended universities in the US or London," the cable recorded Col Schleicher as having shared with the embassy's political officer.
Hardly surprising, given that Osama bin Laden's hiding place was practically a next door neighbor of the Pakistani military. What was next, a recruitment ad campaign with the theme "Got Osama?"

Stories like this, or the Gitmo files that "[laid] bare the patchwork and contradictory evidence that in many cases would never have stood up in criminal court or a military tribunal," have become hot material for reporters and editors.

The wealth of new information made WikiLeaks a magnet for such old line media stalwarts as the Guardian or the New York Times. However, the more such pillars of the establishment see of how WikiLeaks operates, the more uncomfortable they get.

Let them eat cake ... and die
Stylistic and ethical differences came up cause clashes between WikiLeaks and its mainstream media partners. In the Frontline documentary, David Leigh, investigations executive editor of the Guardian, describes Assange's reluctance to redact the names of individuals named in the cable: "And he said: 'These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.' And a silence fell around the table." The segment starts at about 38:40:


Or there was the New Statesman story that Assange makes WikiLeaks staff sign a non-disclosure that says they will not leak any of the leaked material and that a breach carries a £12m penalty -- about $19.5 million.

And then there's the control that Assange reportedly tried to keep over the material and how news organizations used it. To have the Guardian pass material to the Times to get around the heavy personal control of the flawed leader of a supposedly anarchist organization sounds like the plot line of an absurdist play. But then, fiction doesn't get much stranger than fact.

It's us or us
To paraphrase the old comic strip Pogo, WikiLeaks met the enemy, and he is they. But the process of becoming what you least wanted -- whether a secretive government or your parents -- isn't restricted to Assange's gang. News media have been at it for much longer.

They say that they want to make information available to the public. And yet, companies in the industry have kept information close to the vest to create an artificial scarcity that forced consumers and advertisers to rely on their newspapers, magazines and broadcasts. Traditional news organizations have been reluctant to let readers freely comment on stories, or even to provide links and credit to the online sources from which they take insight and ideas.

Now, they find themselves in league with people who espouse the hacker and Internet culture of radical transparency -- the idea that if people have full information, they can make more intelligent decision and keep a better eye on those in power. That's the same approach that wants information to be free, which leaves news organizations wondering how they're going to make a living.

Going nutty on the contradictions
The internal contradictions can make anyone a little nutty. Look at what happened to the Wall Street Journal. Last December, it ran an editorial denouncing Assange as an enemy of the U.S. whose "mass, indiscriminate exposure of anything labeled secret that he can lay his hands on is a hostile act against a democracy." But by earlier this month, the Journal launched its own WikiLeaks competitor called SafeHouse. (Too bad security experts said that it was so badly done that it never should have launched as is.)

Traditional news organizations have had a premium on getting information out first. And yet, here we have competitors working together in a coalition that WikiLeaks helped put together in the first place. They don't want to offer too much credit, but now they admit how beholding they are to others who can actually get sensitive information. Someone like New York Times editor Bill Keller can write off WikiLeaks as, you know, just a source one month, and the next come close to admitting that the organization practices journalism, even if not his style.

The experience of handling the cables leaks has brought the Fourth Estate to a crossroads. What survives the business and philosophical changes will look significantly different from what we see today. No wonder so many editors look worried.

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Image: PBS
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.