LectureHop: Inside the Wikileaks Story
Written by Bwog Staff
Radically transparent Bwog correspondent Alex Jones reports from yesterday’s panel discussion on Wikileaks, which featured Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times , and Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian .
Audience members flew around the digital world on their phones–likely checking for the latest updates and videos from the democratic unrest in Egypt–as they took seats in Low Rotunda, a cathedral to the physical accumulation of knowledge that has been left in the Internet’s wake. Wikileaks: The Inside Story was held Thursday on campus to discuss the specifics of Wikileaks’ rise to international infamy and Julian Assange’s relationship with established media outlets with those most intimately involved.
The panel was hosted by Columbia’s School of Journalism, and was comprised of New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, and former Assitant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith (now a professor at Harvard Law). Alan Rusbridger and, to a lesser extent, Bill Keller were Julian Assange’s main points of contact with the mainstream media as he attempted to disseminate formerly secret government documents. Thursday’s panel was the first time that Keller and Rusbridger had met publicly to discuss their process of dealing with the documents and their dealings with Assange.
The short and skinny of it all is that Assange and Nick Davies, a senior correspondent for The Guardian, somehow came into contact. Davies wrote late December that it was he who took the initiative to find Assange and persuade him not to publish the leaked documents in their entirety, but to instead cooperate with mainstream media organizations; the exact details of their first negotiations are still unclear. Davies then went to Rusbridger proposing to partner with Wikileaks to help investigate the more than 300 million pages of found documents. Rusbridger called in Keller at the Times and three other editors at major European news outlets, and they pooled resources and staff to sift through the enormous amount of data. The Times kept in constant contact with the US State Department so as to have government input into the publication of decidedly sensitive information. Keller made it clear that in many instances the Times simply disagreed with the stance of the State Department and refused to voluntarily censor itself to avoid embarrassing the government. The European outlets had much less contact with their own governments and the US government.
Eventually, Assange severed ties with the Times and the Guardian over issues surrounding those papers’ criticism of Assange. Davies, the initial go-between, cut off all contact with Assange in October, in protest of his stance on publishing the leaked documents. Both Keller and Rusbridger describe Assange as unbalanced and unpredictable, and at critical moments completely unreachable. Rusbridger at one point went to the measure of writer him a physical letter, a method described as “extreme, these days,” by the moderator Emily Bell. Bell, director of the J-School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, was an extremely astute and perceptive moderator, who was very familiar with the players and politics in question, having worked for The Guardian for 18 years, serving as the director for digital content before her arrival at Columbia.
A good portion of the evening’s discussion was taken up by the fascinating narration of what has been a somewhat grim fairy tale for the journalism world. The panel was actually sponsored in part by the Times to coincide with the launch of its new e-book, Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy. The Guardian has also published a book, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, on the same day as the Times’. However, the most substantive part of the discussion shed new light on the ramifications of the whole episode, and what we should expect from the future: how does technology affect our relationship with information and our expectations for privacy? It was helpfully pointed out that this has not been the largest media investigation into the US Government’s behavior, but that the inquiry into the 2000 elections was an endeavor of similar scope. Jack Goldsmith clarified with legal analysis: if Assange is successfully prosecuted in the US for any number of various legal charges, then the many dozens of journalists involved are just as guilty. Keller argues that all journalists should have a sense of alarm if there is any prosecution. Even the fear of prosecution could have a cooling effect on the willingness of the media to pursue investigative stories in the government.
Goldsmith predicts a digital arms race between hackers/media and the government over the protection of sensitive data, and ultimately, he says, the government will lose. He also argued that the distinction between WikiLeaks and the mainstream media would soon disappear, pointing to steps in that direction already taken by Al Jazeera. “Everyone will be a WikiLeaks,” he proclaimed, “the New York Timeswill be a WikiLeaks.” What happens in a world in which the transmission and production of information is so cheap? What does it say when nearly as much information as is contained in Butler library can be stolen and sent to whomever is willing to take it?
In the end, there are many more questions than answers regarding Wikileaks’ role in our modern media. The panel held in Low was richly informative about the events which transpired, but the most important part of the story is yet to come. Judging from the uncontroversial and relatively sterile rapport between Bill Keller and Alan Rusbridger, and the coincidental timing of their book launches, perhaps the next installment is just around the corner. History has yet to be made and a conclusion yet to be drawn on the battle between old standards of privacy and new technological capabilities.
Those interested can watch a video of the entire discussion.
Photography by Hans Hyttinen