Wikileaks challenges journalists: Whose side are you on?

A reporter e-mailed yesterday to ask my reaction to the ongoing Wikileaks controversy. My e-mailed response bounced, so I figure I’m not short-stopping anyone’s quote by publishing my response here, instead.

Here’s what I had to say:

The challenge for journalists reporting on Wikileaks is that, ultimately, you’re reporting someone else’s anonymous sources. Since reporters didn’t collect this information themselves, they don’t know the full story of where this information came from, who had access to it, or how or why it was released to Wikileaks.

Obviously, journalists would prefer to have that background information to help inform their decisions about reporting, even if they never reporting that information themselves.

I hope that Wikileaks, at the very least, encourages reporters to be more aggressive in challenging authority and working with sources to get information that officials, in government or industry, would prefer to keep from the public’s eyes.

Sources with government and industry want the truth to get to the public. If journalists do not provide the means to make that happen, alternate media such as Wikileaks will do it instead. Personally, as a citizen, I’m thankful for that.

Moving on…

Obviously, Wikileaks’ ongoing document dumps have a real impact in the world beyond our meta-discussion about its influence on journalism. For that, I’ve found fascinating this post I found following a tweet from Jay Rosen. It analyzes statements from Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, and offers suggestions about Assange’s motivation.

If Wikileaks is a different kind of organization than anything we’ve ever seen before, it’s interesting to see him put himself in line with more conventional progressivism. Assange isn’t off base, after all, when he quotes Theodore Roosevelt’s words from his 1912 Progressive party presidential platform as the epigraph to the first essay; Roosevelt realized a hundred years ago that “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people,” and it was true, then too, that “To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship.” Assange is trying to sh-t all over this unholy alliance in ways that the later and more radical Roosevelt would likely have commended.

I’ll leave the political debate over Wikileaks’ impact to other writers and other forums. Here, I’ll bring it back to journalism.

If you’ve got a problem with Assange’s motivation – whatever that might be – fine. But if you have a problem with the fact that Assange has a motivation, I suggest that you might just want to take a look in the mirror, first.

All journalists are motivated by some agenda in their reporting. Or, at least, they’d better be.

As some journalists scold Wikileaks for releasing government documents (scroll for Wolf Blitzer take-down), let’s ask about our motivation to report. Are you reporting for your readers? Or your sources? Are in journalism to defend your readers’ interests? Or your own?

Reporters’ reaction to Wikileaks divides us into two camps: Those who want to see information get to the public, by whatever means, and those who want to control the means by which information flows. While it’s fine to want to be the reporter who always gets the scoop, I can’t support journalists who imply that the public’s better served by having stories go unreported than going through “Journalism-approved” channels.

If you’re upset with the way that Wikileaks is getting information to the public, then you’d better try harder to gather and publish that information yourself. (As Rosen suggested yesterday, we wouldn’t have Wikileaks if we had a functioning watchdog press.) And if you think that the public shouldn’t have information that the government wishes to withhold, might I suggest that you are in the wrong line of work?

Ultimately, for the best journalists, Wikileaks is not as the end of the story, but another step in a journey to truth. If you’re working to verify its documents and to use them to “connect the dots” with other information, to tell a fuller, more truthful story about how institutions are or are not serving the public, then congratulations, bless you, and thank you for fighting a very good fight. We need more of you in this business.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    Bless you, Robert. You have totally nailed this. It is difficult enough for journalists (and the public) to get information as it is. It is dumbfounding to watch some journalists get ruffled when a dam of info is burst open. With friends like these…..

    Marc Cooper
    USC Annenberg

  2. says:

    Those who stands to gain is behind all these chaos. Either advancing humanity or rebooting humanity. Wikileaks is just a ploy. I just hope they are aware of that and stand to reap the plus. The way I look at it, they’re just donkeys.


  3. says:

    It’s a straw-man to deny or affirm journalism here, except for convenience’ sake, since WikiLeaks is coming under the colour of journalism.

    The material is the stuff of history, of facts. Never before, and possibly never again, will the actual opinions, thoughts, policies, realized or proposed, of politicians, officials and diplomats been before the public, without the slightest possibility of ‘plausible deniability’.

    Radio and Television was a quantum leap in reportage: a microphone was stuck in an official’s face, and people heard what the person wanted the people to hear, without the intervention of the journalist or reporters pen.

    Now we get their thoughts, and on a scale so massive in breadth and scope, it will take years, as Assange, et al, have accurately claimed, for journalists and historians to analyze and correlate.

    This brings us full-circle: is it journalism? Well, from now on we are constrained to view it as a big part of journalism. What constitutes ‘journalism’ has now undergone a sea-change, even for WikiLeaks’ most vitriolic detractors.


  4. says:

    Well said. Why aren’t more journalists digging? That’s the foundation of our profession. Courage. Forget the personal agenda. A journalist can’t afford to hold, filter or print a story with an agenda. As far as Wikileaks, I choose not to depend on the word of somebody else. How many journalists out there are reading Wikileaks right now and gathering enough information to make a credible story that will result in a difference? I hope a lot. Perhaps if Wikileaks would have jump-started journalists years ago, Roosevelt’s perspective might be a little less horrific. A little.

  5. says:

    As a journalist in the UK, I’m pleased you’ve posted this piece. It will hearten all scribes who strive for the truth.
    Well done.

  6. says:

    Here is the truth about the allegation made by Swedish authorities about journalist Julian Assange:

  7. You nailed it, Robert. I’m especially incensed by Wolf Blitzer’s tirade. Wolf did a perfect job of demonstrating how dysfunctional the corporate media have become in the US (especially since 9/11). I’m putting my hope for a better future for journalism in the wave of non-profit news organizations (ProPublica, Voice of San Diego, Investigative News Network, et al) arising to fill the holes and make up for the failure of old-media news.

    If Wikileaks does get shut down by authoritarian over-reaction, the next wave of Wikileaks-like sites will spring up.