FOREIGN POLICY JULY 26, 2010
The final scene of the 1975 movie Three Days of the Condor is enough to make any journalist nostalgic. After two hours of dodging assassins and exposing corruption at the heart of the American government, Robert Redford finds sanctuary by making his way to 229 West 43rd Street—the iconic old address of The New York Times. There he confronts his CIA tormentor (played by Cliff Robertson), announcing that he has told a Times reporter everything he knows. In the age of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, this was enough to make for a happy ending: Now the truth would make headlines, the government would be humbled, and good would triumph over evil.
It couldn’t play out that way today, and not just because the Times has moved from its solid old headquarters to a sleek new tower on Eighth Avenue. Everyone knows that newspapers, and the whole of what is now derided on the Internet as the MSM (mainstream media), are in dire straits, both financially and in terms of what might be called ideological confidence. One of the most prominent critics of conventional journalism has been Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks.org, who is responsible for the leak of some 90,000 classified documents from the U.S. military in Afghanistan. When he was profiled by the New Yorker magazine in June, Assange made clear that he had two major targets: government secrecy and the authority of traditional journalism, which he described as “a craven sucking up to official sources to imbue the eventual story with some kind of official basis.”
Wikileaks was meant to shatter this paradigm, Assange said. “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well.” This kind of populist, information-wants-to-be-free rhetoric has been made familiar by other Internet evangelists. Indeed, the very name Wikileaks incorporates the stem that is familiar from Wikipedia—the wiki being a collaborative, open-sourced project, in which the harnessed intelligence of the many is held to be superior to the directive intelligence of the few.
But this morning, if you wanted to read about Assange’s big coup, you could not find it on wikileaks.org. Whether because of a spike in traffic or something more sinister, the site has been down for many hours. Instead, you have to go to The New York Times, or the Guardian, or Der Spiegel, the MSM “dinosaurs” to which Wikileaks re-leaked its leaked documents. (According to the Times, these papers were “given access to the material several weeks ago.”)
It is almost as though Assange realized that the Internet alone is not competent to “check and verify” a huge volume of un-contextualized secret documents. Only people with expert knowledge of Afghanistan and of the operating procedures of the U.S. Army will be able to read those documents and separate the meaningful from the meaningless. Likewise, only people with an earned reputation for trustworthiness can have their interpretation of the leaks accepted by the public at large. And, it even seems, only institutions with the resources to keep their websites up and running during periods of heavy traffic can manage to disseminate the leak at all.
Wikileaks’s highest value is transparency, but the leak suggests that transparency is moot without authority. Perhaps this truth will start to dawn on Assange and the many other new media figures who, with their gleeful attacks on the mainstream media, are helping to undermine the authority of institutions like The New York Times in ways that the U.S. government never has or could. Where would a leaker find himself—in an old movie or in real life—if there were no one left to leak to?