NYT’s Keller Almost Ready to Admit WikiLeaks Is Journalism

WikiLeaks' leader Julian Assange

When WikiLeaks exploded into public view last year, with its release of a classified Iraqi war video and then thousands of documents relating to the war in Afghanistan, the response from traditional media outlets — and in particular from the New York Times — was very interesting. Although the Times worked closely with WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange in order to get access to and report on the documents, executive editor Bill Keller made it clear that he did not consider Assange a journalist, nor did he think of WikiLeaks as being in any way a journalistic entity. Based on some comments that Keller made at a symposium at Columbia University on Thursday, however, he may be changing his mind.

In his recently released e-book about dealing with WikiLeaks, which was excerpted in the New York Times magazine, the executive editor makes it clear that he considered the WikiLeaks founder just a source like any other, not a journalistic colleague, and said that he would “hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism.” In December, Keller seemed to come close to admitting that WikiLeaks might be practicing something approaching journalism, when he told a Nieman Foundation event that the organization was doing things in a “more journalistic fashion.” But he added that it still wasn’t “my kind of news organization,” and that if Assange was acting as a journalist, “I don’t regard him as a kindred spirit — he’s not the kind of journalist I am.”

At a symposium yesterday at the Columbia School of Journalism, however — where Keller appeared along with Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger and Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School and former assistant attorney general, in a panel moderated by Emily Bell of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism — the Times editor all but acknowledged that WikiLeaks is a journalistic entity, when he said that he did not support the U.S. Department of Justice’s attempts to build a case against Assange under the Espionage Act. According to Wired’s version of the event, Keller said:

It’s very hard to conceive of a prosecution of Julian Assange that wouldn’t stretch the law to be applicable to us. Whatever one thinks of Julian Assange… journalists should feel a sense of alarm at any legal action that intends to punish Assange for doing what journalists do.

It’s nice to see that the NYT’s executive editor is — however reluctantly — coming around to the view that we have been arguing for some time: namely, that WikiLeaks is effectively a media entity, and that what it does qualifies as journalism (the faculty of Columbia’s School of Journalism clearly believes this as well, even if Keller doesn’t yet). It may not be the kind of journalism that the New York Times engages in, but it clearly has a role to play in the expanded media ecosystem we see emerging around us. And the fact that WikiLeaks is effectively a stateless entity (the “first stateless news organization,” NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has called it) is a crucial part of that role, media analyst Clay Shirky argues in a recent piece for The Guardian.

Because this tension between governments and leakers is so important, and because WikiLeaks so dramatically helps leakers, it isn’t just a new entrant in the existing media landscape. Its arrival creates a new landscape.

Because WikiLeaks is “headquartered on the web,” Shirky says, no single country or government can shut it down. Even if Assange is eventually prosecuted or removed in some way as the head of the organization, as early supporter and Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir described it in a speech recently, “a thousand more heads will come out.” In fact, as Shirky notes, that is already happening — Al-Jazeera and The Guardian formed a partnership to release thousands of documents about the relationship between Israel and Palestine (now being called the “Palestine Papers”), and former WikiLeaks staffer Daniel Domscheit-Berg has launched an entity called OpenLeaks. Meanwhile, the New York Times has talked about possibly creating its own digital tip box where sources could leak documents instead of sending them to WikiLeaks.

Whether Bill Keller likes it or not, the tools of journalism have been set loose from the control of entities like the New York Times or The Guardian. Anyone can effectively become a publisher now, and that includes WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks and anyone who makes use of similar tools — just as people who find themselves in the central square in Cairo or Tunisia can behave as journalists if they wish to. That’s an important phenomenon, and it would be nice to see the NYT editor come right out and admit that it is happening, rather than continuing to dance around the implications.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Rosauro Ochoa