Wikileaks, journalism and me
92,000 documents. This week, Wikileaks unloaded on the world the greatest leak since the Pentagon Papers. On one level, the five years of secret documents obtained by Wikileaks and released in conjunction with the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel tell a harrowing tale of the Allied failure in Afghanistan. But they also represent a sea change in journalism.
I’ll leave the parsing of the documents — which tell of Pakistani treachery, government corruption and of everything from botched operations to pederasty — for another occasion. What really matters is the role of the internet in 2010.
I am 29 years old, a journalist and a native New Yorker. My CV includes work for Slate, Wired, Foreign Policy and some of the biggest dot-coms in the world. In career terms, that means I have been blessed. I am grateful.
Growing up, my family always had a newspaper in the house. These days, my parents — divorced now — both read the paper online rather than buying a paper copy. For lifestyle and sport stories, they often read the email forwards their friends send them or the content that pops up on their ISP’s homepage instead of reading newspaper content. They’re just two examples out of millions of Americans who no longer read the daily newspaper.
It’s no secret that the journalism business is a mess. Publications are folding, salaries are getting slashed, the old guard is regrouping in every possible permutation. But newspapers also sponsor incredible investigative journalism. The kind of stories that can’t be completed in a day or a week. The stories that citizens — taxpayers — have a right to know.
In this case, Wikileaks did the work. Wikileaks, unlike the Times or the Guardian, makes no pretense of objectivity. They are expressly partisan, expressly anti-war. Every time I read about Wikileaks, it seems like they stepped out of a 1990s Bruce Sterling story. In fact, hell, they are the dream of the old cyberpunk aesthetic writ large. They’re also saving investigative journalism.
I started my BA at the relatively late age of 20. I studied journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia — a school I enthusiastically recommend to anyone crazy enough to consider that career. The learning was vocation oriented — by the time I graduated, I knew LexisNexis and the arcana of Philadelphia’s City Hall inside out. My first major gig was writing over at Gawker Media’s Wonkette during the 2004 Presidential Election. Me and about a third of my classmates stumbled into digital journalism; most of the others fell into print. The print journalists seemed to denigrate the web journalists with the claim that “blogs weren’t journalism.” The only problem is that most of the web isn’t blogs… and that blogs are just a platform, rather than a genre. Thousands upon thousands of journalists research, source and verify stories that are published only on the web each day. I should know; I’m one of them.
The variety of original information and research posted to the web is staggering. Covering the Middle East here at True/Slant, for instance, I have become familiar with sites that collect and translate Jihadist literature, clearinghouses for translated articles for Arabic newspapers and offer first-hand reports from warzones. But so much information is only read by experts and enthusiasts — especially here in the United States where global ignorance is an art form.
No matter what, someone needs to keep serious enterprise journalism going. Newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian will keep on producing serious journalism even as they transition from “newspapers” to “brands.”
The switch from reading news on printed ink-stained paper to computer screens, iPads and smartphones is a strange one. In the past it was only the young and tech-savvy. Now it’s everyone. Just as the music industry suffered an upheaval in the wake of too much connectedness, so did journalism.
Nonetheless, a few operations are out there keeping the work of enterprise journalism alive. Wikileaks, ProPublica and the few dozen thinktanks that offer funding for investigative reporting, for instance. But we need more.
In the meantime, Wikileaks is fighting the good fight of allowing journalists to do what they do best — and we can only thank them for it.