Or is it?
That is among the many issues raised by the activities of the website WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange. The site has stirred up a lot of dust lately because of the 251,287 diplomatic cables it began publishing on Nov. 28. These communications contain some information that puts plans and individuals at risk, according to the U.S. government. A lot of overseas leaders are mad because unflattering comments are made about them.
This week, National Public Radio host Diane Rehm and some guests were discussing the WikiLeaks issues. One of their topics was whether or not Assange is a “journalist.” Her experts were split on the question, but it got me thinking about how I would answer it.
My first step was to define journalist. Article 1 of the Society of Professional Journalist’s bylaws state, “The Society is an organization of persons who are engaged in directing the editorial policy or editing and preparing news and editorial content of independent news media products, or students engaged in the study of these skills and journalism educators.”
Under that vague standard, any idiot — i.e. Rupert Murdoch — with a media product could be a journalist. I guess I will have to define it myself.
When I decided to be a reporter, I chose a college where I could major in journalism. My assumption was I would be studying under professors who already knew how to be journalists. So, what did they teach me? I learned what makes a worthwhile story, how to gather the information for that story, how to research and write it and finally how to present it in print and online. In addition, I learned the rules under which journalists play in the United States — the First Amendment and all that jazz — so I wouldn’t get myself into any unintended trouble (I still need help remembering the rules sometimes, as is the case with any journalist doing the job correctly).
How does that line up with the WikiLeaks brouhaha? First, given the normal amount of sifting a reporter does through governmental junk, the quarter-million cables in the WikiLeaks dump would by most editorial standards produce maybe 2,500 worthwhile articles. Citizens have a right to know everything government does, but only about 10 percent is worth worrying about.
It seems Assange and his posse have the “gathering information” part of the process down pat but they might need some work on what is worthwhile. For example, a document published on Wednesday on the WikiLeaks site (I’d give you the link if it wasn’t constantly on the run from the cyber-police) is about Visa and MasterCard receiving a lobbying boost from the State Department amid a proposed Russian credit card processing law. These two U.S. companies would lose business if the new law passed. The Russians apparently worry Visa and MasterCard share information with the U.S. government, so they wanted their own banks to process purchases.
If it wasn’t for the fact that every time I call my credit card I end up talking to someone in India, I’d say this leak actually applauds the U.S. government for trying to save American jobs.
My point is this is page 10 news at best. If this is indicative of WikiLeaks’ “journalism” I’m more interested in the story on this week’s episode of “The Jersey Shore.” I am sure some of the material is more newsworthy, but that is what separates journalists from the average Joe who also has freedom of speech in America. Journalists are supposed to help busy people by digging for what they truly need to know about and what affects their lives. I’m not sure Assange has done that.
Speaking of freedom of speech, as a foreigner operating outside of the United States there is doubt as to whether Assange or whoever is held responsible for all this would be protected under our federal Constitution. Former Tribune reporter Sarah Cooper recently moved to England and found that reporters there have to be licensed by the state, proving that not everyone plays by the same rules as Americans do. If the U.S. government gets its hands on Assange, I imagine he will be prosecuted under espionage or other laws, whereas the freedom of speechers will only be able to try to shield him with principles that likely will prove ineffective.
Coming down to where the ink meets the newsprint, if one of my reporters brought me a bunch of city of Sparks documents and told me he or she wanted to print them verbatim with short articles analyzing them, I’d tell that reporter to go take a flying leap off the top of the press. We’re here to weed through that stuff for the benefit of our readers, not to overwhelm them. Of course, those documents should be available for journalists (or people with too much time on their hands) to analyze, but simply putting them out there does little good.
And I know that if some idiot released a document that endangered someone I cared about with little or no benefit to society, I’d tell that person where to stick his freedom of speech.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some documents to read through so you don’t have to.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.