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The Montreal Review: Who is behind WikiLeaks, the website that released a decrypted classified military video showing the killing of 12 people among them two journalists from Reuters during an U.S. military air strike in Baghdad in 2007?

Lisa Lynch: That's not an easy question to answer. WikiLeaks is an organization whose members include computer hackers, activists, investigative journalists, and political dissidents from China, the United States, and Australia and elsewhere. All members are volunteers, and most are working secretly. The primary figure associated with WikiLeaks, although he prefers not to take all the credit, is Julian Assange, an Australian in his late 30s who first came to public attention in the 1990s, as a teenage hacker convicted of breaking into U.S. and Australian computers. Since then, he's led a fairly peripatetic life, working at times as a researcher and security consultant, and using his programming skills to advance the free software movement. Another figure who's showing up frequently these days is Daniel Schmitt, a German spokesman for the group who's begun to take interviews on behalf of the organization and speak at conferences.

As far as who made WikiLeaks happen -- Assange has said that his inspiration as co-founder came in part from Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1969. When he was putting the group together, he turned to another well-known champion of information freedom: John Young, the architect who founded the document archive Cryptome in 1996. Young was a supporter in the beginning, but shortly before the group made their own site public, he became concerned about the WikiLeak's mandate and leaked some of the internal correspondence between the group's founding members. Since then, the two groups have had an uneasy relationship, but lately Cryptome's come out in support of the WikiLeaks.

The Montreal Review: So, can we call WikiLeaks' type of reporting journalism? Nick Denton, publisher of the gossip site Gawker, said for the Mother Jones Magazine "Outfits like WikiLeaks, and blogs like ours... don't feel the same sense of responsibility [as traditional media]."

Lisa Lynch: I think it is very difficult in this day and age to draw boundaries about what journalism is. People have started to use the phrase 'acts of journalism' to describe instances where we have to recognize something as journalistic even if it is not emanating from a traditional media outlet. So WikiLeaks is committing acts of journalism in the sense that it is presenting and contextualizing information that is frequently incredibly significant, and frequently would not come to the public without the aid of WikiLeaks. If you're asking if WikiLeaks has a way of doing things that sets it apart from the methods of the North Atlantic model of journalism, I'd say yes. But, on the other hand, they are sort of in line with the "honest witness' tradition in journalism, exemplified by journalists like Robert Fisk. At least until recently: I think we can say what they are doing with the Iraq video -- namely, framing the video aggressively to produce a certain interpretation -- is a turn towards advocacy journalism as well.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

As far as what Nick Denton said about journalistic responsibility -- WikiLeaks has a profound sense of responsibility, but their ethics are not the ethics of professional North Atlantic journalistic culture. They have ethical responsibility towards documents and sources and in that respect they are incredibly consistent. They do not have a responsibility towards particular nation state. They do not have a responsibility towards a particular politics. This last point gets muddled, I think, because every time when they release a document the conversation that ensues becomes a conversation about that particular document and its implications, but that conversation is not identical with the ethics of WikiLeaks. As an example, I laughed out loud yesterday when I was following Wikileaks' Twitter backchannel: there were a few people ranting about how Wikileaks was unpatriotic because they chose to leak the Iraq video. The point is rather that they are not American, something that many people seem not to understand. Even to assume the group has an agenda bounded by a nation-state is fundamentally misunderstand and misread of what WikiLeaks are doing. So in some ways I'm little impatient with this.

What is wrong with the news? To answer this dismaying question, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex S. Jones explores how the epochal changes sweeping the media have eroded the core news that has been the essential food supply of our democracy. At a time of dazzling technological innovation, Jones says that what stands to be lost is the fact-based reporting that serves as a watchdog over government, holds the powerful accountable, and gives citizens what they need. In a tumultuous new media era, with cutthroat competition and panic over profits, the commitment of the traditional news media to serious news is fading.

The Montreal Review: WikiLeaks declared that they want to expose the crimes of corrupt corporations and authoritarian regimes. They say that their primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet Bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but also unethical behaviour of Western governments and corporations. However, China has a firewall, in Africa, the percent of Internet users is insignificant, and in the Middle East, the free access to Internet is restricted. In the democratic societies, Internet presumably influences the politics, but the totalitarian regimes still seem immune against the power of new media. Do you think that the digital media are really a danger to the totalitarian regimes?

Lisa Lynch: Certainly in the case of the Iranian unrest in 2009 -- as many commentators have already noted -- there was a vast overestimation of the power of Twitter to facilitate any kind of social change. Instead, what happened was that what was happening in Iran to certain groups of people became intimately evident to the West. So there was this kind of misreading of the situation, because we felt this sense of intimacy, and we projected our own expectations of what would happen. In that sense, yes, there is a lot of naivete about new media. However, we can step away from this focus on just the Internet. I like to think about the triangular relationship between media, state, and civil society. Let's look at the example of Russia today. In Soviet Russia the media was empowered by the state. The media was seen as part of the state. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union newspaper circulation declined 90 percent. This was partially because of tabloidization of media - a hyper-acceleration of the capitalist influence. But the decline was also connected with the fact that there was no civil society in Russia that had any trust in the media: media consumption was always a compulsory duty in Soviet Russia, and seemed to have no place in the emerging order.

Now, however, there is an emerging professional culture of journalism in Russia. There is incredible repression of freedom of information, but also journalists acting heroically in a way they might not have previously, taking risks that journalists from other countries might not be willing take in the name of freedom of information. I'm certainly not saying that journalism in Russia is healthy, but if you take the long view it's possible to imagine that if a professional culture of journalism emerged, people could have more trust in media and positive changes in society and politics could happen.

In Journalism's Roving Eye, John Maxwell Hamilton--a historian and former foreign correspondent--provides a sweeping and definitive history of American foreign news reporting from its inception to the present day and chronicles the economic and technological advances that have influenced overseas coverage, as well as the cavalcade of colorful personalities who shaped readers' perceptions of the world across two centuries.

Sometimes, as well, when disasters strike in troubled media environments -- as in Mexico after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, or China following the 2008 quake -- the civic role that journalism came to play changes the climate of expectation about what media could do. We saw in China some real moments of tension between the civil society and the state that were reflected in some shifts in the media. It's true that those instances were not permanent, but this shows there are moments and circumstances that shift the triangular relationship between society, state and media. So I don't think of in terms of the technologically deterministic claim that the Internet itself is going to change the world for the better, but I do think that this triangular relationship is always in tension, and that the Internet in conjunction with other circumstances might produce a more permanent shift towards a healthier media environment.

One of the things that new media facilitate is the rise of international transparency movements. We see that there is an increased expectation among citizens of counties around the world to have data, information, primary source documents, and government information available to them. That has been a boom for journalism in the sense that it has created a civic awareness of the importance of certain kinds of information and of the new role citizens might play in sifting through data. We see this for example in the Guardian's investigation project, where the newspaper asked readers to analyze documents connected to an inquiry over misspending among British MPs: over 26,000 people pored through over 220,000 documents looking for expense irregularities. That was a watershed moment for journalism, I think: this kind of crowdsourcing is incredibly promising.

On the other hand, we see the increase in a phenomena quite threatening to journalistic enterprise -- "libel tourism," or the tendency for writers and media outlets to get sued outside of what we'd previously considered their publication range. This creates a kind of global climate of concern about the legal implications of what you publish. For me the dangers of this new climate were illustrated quite brilliantly over the weekend. If you went to the website of the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times, you would see on the front page an apology from the editorial core of the New York Times to the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to his father, and to the former Prime Minister for "any distress or embarrassment" caused by an article suggesting that they are part of the Asian political dynasties. The New York Times Company has agreed to pay 160,000 Singapore dollars (114,000 US) in damages to Singapore's leaders over the article. It was dismaying to watch the NYT react in this manner -- as their own public editor noted the following week. I think that libel chill compounded with the global flow of information creates on the one hand increased demand for transparency and on the other hand, you have this climate where the traditional media organizations are not able to support that demand. So there is a gap between expectations and demand.

The Montreal Review: What do you think about the plans of some leading newspapers to introduce paywalls for their websites?

Lisa Lynch: I think that 2010 and especially 2011 is going to be the moment of the paywall. I don't at all know what is going to happen. So far, every paywall has been unsuccessful. But I also think that the media organizations who were trying it had good reasons. There are so many conversations and debates about the future of media, and the only thing that emerges is that there is no one visionary that can fix the problem. Most important thinkers who study media today seem to be focusing on articulating the problem. After all, it is futile to attempt to solve the problem while we are still in the process of articulating of its dimensions. Historic overconfidence on the circulation model, and on advertising, still has a grip on both the industry and on readers. On all fronts, we need to generate a better understanding of the cost of doing business.

April 9, 2010.


Lisa Lynch is a professor of journalism at Concordia University, Montreal. She worked from 1987 to 1992 as a magazine and newspaper journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area and then in Pennsylvania, writing on science and cultural affairs. Since beginning her academic career, Dr. Lynch has written about the prison system, Guantanamo, and nuclear policy for both academic and popular publications. She is currently at work on two book projects; one on the representation of the post-cold war nuclear threat in film, museums and the visual arts, and another on the everincreasing boundary skirmishes between traditional, institutional sites of facticity and newer, contingent sites of authority.


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