WikiLeaks: “Does the American Public Care?”

I opined yesterday that the massive — and potentially illegal — data dump by WikiLeaks would cause a shitstorm in the land of the TV Talking Heads and with government officials Inside the Beltway.

That happened as expected. But I wonder if the American public cares about the behind-the-scenes glimpse that the release of the confidential cables provides about our foreign policy and relationships with other nations and world leaders.

We should. Because this situation points to some big questions about national security, our government’s ability to conduct foreign policy with certainly some expectation of confidentiality, and the future of individual and organizational privacy in a digital age where just about everything is online.

And for me, it once again highlights the tension between the government’s ability to function — hopefully in the best interests of the nation — and the role of a free press in a democracy.

Here’s from an article in USA Today, “Role of free press weighed in wake of State Dept. leaks“:

At the heart of the heated reaction Monday to WikiLeaks’ latest giant government document drop were fundamental questions about the role of a free press in a democracy: Would the publication of secret State Department information serve the public good? Or would it merely endanger diplomats, jeopardize international relations and complicate the war on terror?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s answer was clear: “There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people and nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations,” she told reporters.

Without specifically mentioning the explosive release in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, which detailed government deception during the Vietnam War, Clinton said there have been “examples in history in which official conduct has been made public in the name of exposing wrongdoings or misdeeds” by government officials and agencies.

“This is not one of those cases,” she said sternly.

And many agree with her position here — including a number of the TV Talking Heads who view themselves as journalists but are really just entertainers. Just sayin’.

So here’s the point — again from the USA Today article:

Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said publication of the e-mails could lead to a government crackdown on information the public has a right to know. “The chilling effect will be huge,” she warned. She said the news outlets have carefully and responsibly reported the information available and there’s “no smoking gun” anyway. She said she’s disturbed that most people won’t bother to read the stories. “The biggest question,” she said, is “does the American public care?”

Every time a situation like this happens — and in the digital age it will happen more and more — it raises issues for journalists that focus on trust, responsibility and ethics. And there really aren’t easy answers as responsible journalists have to wrestle with the disclosure of information that could be harmful to governments and individuals and the legitimate right of people in a democracy to know what the hell is going on. And when you throw into the mix an organization like WikiLeaks that has the ability to make the information public independent of news organizations, then you have really added a new dimension to this entire dilemma and debate.

As I said yesterday, I believe in a free, strong and aggressive press — anchored in responsible journalism and ethics. And if we reach the point where the press — OK, news media — is only going to print or broadcast what government officials want us to know, then this country is in deep doo-doo.

That’s something the American public should care about.

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2 responses to “WikiLeaks: “Does the American Public Care?”

  1. Brian "Breeze" Wooley

    Though I agree that the WikiLeaks matter raises some interesting questions, I don’t think it is quite the “game changer” the Echo Chamber would have the public believe.

    I found this to be a refreshing take on the matter at hand, by someone who ought to know:

    http://www.lawfareblog.com/2010/12/realism-101-on-wikileaks/

    • Thanks for the comment. And I agree with you. Even the White House — via Robert Gibbs — downplayed the WikiLeaks matter yesterday. Part of that is no doubt damage control. But it also reflects reality.

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