News’ View: Trust journalists, not WikiLeaks

Yesterday, WikiLeaks began unleashing a document dump of over 250,000 diplomatic cables, a leak even larger than the Iraq and Afghan war logs it revealed this July. This summer, the Taliban used names and locations in WikiLeaks documents to hunt down local Afghan informants. Yesterday’s revelations will have just as troubling consequences.

WikiLeaks’ higher goal is noble. But it is not a news outlet. It provides document dumps, furnished by anonymous sources. It regurgitates sensitive, life-threatening information with no analysis and context. Even as we embrace increasing openness, we cannot abandon responsibility.

This newspaper praises the discretion of other news outlets covering the cables. They have protected the names of confidential informants, as well as revelations that could compromise national security — treating sensitive information responsibly while serving the public interest.

But by naming and shaming individual diplomats, WikiLeaks has thrown a wrench in the operation of diplomacy. The leak does not serve a greater good that justifies endangering an intelligence operative. From a policy standpoint, Cablegate changes little. The off-the-cuff remarks provide insight into foreign policy, but they are not official statements of that policy.

The privacy of unfiltered and unmonitored dicussion allows sound public decisions to coalesce. Consider the academic freedom we enjoy at Yale; what we say while safe from public remonstrance allows us to form opinions over time.Snapshots taken during the process of diplomatic decision-making do not predict or presuppose policy outcomes. Cablegate gives us snippets, not a scandal. These internal debates and decision-making processes need to retain some privacy — otherwise, frank discussions will be reduced to packaging and sound-bites. Indeed, the leak, which WikiLeaks hopes will promote free speech, may have the opposite effect. The shell-shocked diplomatic community will respond to the embarrassment by increasing classification levels and stonewalling the press.

As student journalists and citizens, we regard transparency and freedom of the press highly. But WikiLeaks’ behavior is nothing like the probing reporting that cut through the sinister secrecy of Watergate or responsibly handled the Pentagon Papers leaks. Julian Assange, the organization’s head, takes a cavalier attitude to collateral damage. He claims to understand what is appropriate secrecy better than the diplomats and agents whose careers and lives depend on that secrecy.

As our generation reaches political maturity, governments will find it much harder to keep secrets. Private Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of stealing the classified files, allegedly copied them onto a fake Lady Gaga CD. The largest government leak in history was handed to The Guardian on a two-inch flash drive. There is much about this new world worth embracing. But as long as the Assanges of the world play fast and loose with the privacy and security of others, it will be the responsibility of careful and courageous news outlets to unveil without endangering, and for whistle-blowers to turn to journalists before provocateurs.

The government and military have compelling reasons to keep certain secrets out of the prying public eye. When our leaders employ cynical scare-tactics to mask injustice, malice or incompetence, good journalism should not be afraid to pry or expose. But the recent leaks represent a reckless kind of public action, one that focuses on its narrow benefits and ignores its terrible costs.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Did the U.S. know about Pearl Harbor in advance? Was the Gulf of Tonkin a cooked up raison d’etre for war? Did Saddam have WOMD? How many soldiers died because we were lied to about these questions?
    Let the truth fall where it may

    PK

  • jcraven

    I worry when the student’s studying to be journalists fail to understand the importance of true transparency and do not see that the fallout from Wickileak’s revelations are no different than the fallout caused by the release of the Pentagon Papers, or the threats of virtual Armageddon against Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The entire point of these revelations about U.S. Foreign policy has been to demonstrate there is a massive divide between what the U.S. government does, and what it tells the American people it does.

  • cappi

    If journalists and the media were doing their job, we still shouldn’t blindly trust them.

    Trust and verify. The verifying part has been coming up short for at least a decade. If you haven’t noticed, you haven’t been paying attention.

  • pablum

    Trust Yale to defend the philosopher kings against the rabble.

  • prion

    I totally agree. YDN should also use only the university’s press releases for exactly that reason. The free world depends on maintaining the facade, and not undermining it with petty details about the burdens that we actually endure.

  • clarkejl

    If the world’s only superpower cannot keep its own communications secure, it is not entitled to rely on the help of news outlets. The YDN may be correct to observe that “the government and military have compelling reasons to keep certain secrets out of the prying public eye.” But the same cannot be said for the media. News organizations should inform the public, not “patriotically” censor information.

    As Daniel Ellsberg courageously pointed out today, the US government’s reflexive response–that these revelations will damage national security and endanger lives–is the same old script that is recited every time embarrassing information is leaked. I’m concerned that the YDN’s pro-government stance, couched in moral language (“the leak does not serve a greater good”), undermines the kind of healthy skepticism which every news outlet should maintain towards the powerful.

  • David_Braun

    1. Give me one concrete example of a man who was hunted down by the Taliban due to Wikileaks. You can’t.

    2. “[I]t will be the responsibility of . . . whistle-blowers to turn to journalists before provocateurs.” Whistle-blowers such as Bradley Manning can’t turn directly to the New York Times. They’d get caught. Their best option is to anonymously submit to Wikileaks.

    3. “The government and military have compelling reasons to keep certain secrets out of the prying public eye. When our leaders employ cynical scare-tactics to mask injustice, malice or incompetence, good journalism should not be afraid to pry or expose.” … Should not be afraid to expose? Journalists can’t be afraid to expose secrets if they don’t know about the secrets in the first place! Wikileaks made everything possible. It’s contradictory to praise the New York Times while simultaneously criticizing Wikileaks.

  • Harbinger904

    This article is such tosh. Imagine a newspaper, in a country that touts freedom of the presses, completely imbibing the government argument for a lack of transparancy. The authors (once again hiding behind the name of “Yale Daily News” — seriously, I hope the other staffers are successful in opposing this blatant usurpation of their individual opinions and good name) may as well be reiterating the statements of Secretary of State Clinton verbatim (“collateral damage”? Last I checked, they weren’t the ones launching aggressive wars or killing people — not to mention the State Department’s claims as yet are completely unsubstantiated). Unfortunately this is level to which YDNs coverage has sunk — regurgitating the talking points of great power. Luckily, the readers don’t seem to be biting (judging from the 7 brilliant respones above), good on them.

    By the way, mainstream media sources like the NYTimes are already bungling the information http://www.fair.org/blog/2010/11/29/nyt-oversells-wikileaksiranian-missiles-story/ — would be far better to read them in the raw, or at least do the Guardian, which provides far better coverage of the leaks on their website.