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Jul. 26 2010 - 10:45 am | 305 views | 1 recommendation | 3 comments

Wikileaks, journalism and me

Front page of The New York Times on Armistice ...

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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.


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  1. collapse expand

    “…especially here in the United States where global ignorance is an art form.”

    That made me spew soda on my monitor I laughed so hard…because it is so true.

  2. collapse expand

    Investigative reporting across the United States is healthier than Mr. Ungerleider (and many other commentators) realize. Sure, it would be best if all daily newspapers and all local television/radio stations and more magazines and Web sites published exposes. Sure, it would be better if the economic recession/depression had never happened, with one result being cutbacks in newsrooms.

    Still, I know my relative optimism is correct. How do I know? Well, I live in Columbia, Missouri, the home of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), an organization with thousands of dues-paying journalists. I attended the initial IRE conference in 1976. I became increasingly involved, and from 1983-1990 served as IRE’s executive director, in charge of day-to-day operations. I’m still involved in minor ways.

    Any time I please, I can visit the IRE office and see the hundreds of investigative projects that have arrived there so far this year, with hundreds more to come. Many arrive from news organizations barely known outside their circulation areas.

    If you live far away from Columbia, Missouri, making a visit to IRE headquarters impractical, even a visit to the Web site (www.ire.org) will demonstrate the relative health of investigative reporting around the United States.

    • collapse expand

      Steve, thank you for pointing out the existence of IRE. The organization does wonderful work and I heartily recommend that readers check out their website.

      But with that said, I’m still despondent over the state of investigative journalism. Here in the northeast corridor, local newspapers beyond the NYT have largely given up the ghost when it comes to investigative work. To compare, say, the Newark Star-Ledger or the Philadelphia Inquirer with what they once were is depressing.

      Many smaller outfits are doing great investigative work – and kudos for that. But many of those publications are still in financial quicksand.

      Foreign reporting, of course, is a different story…. but even there the situation is in crisis. Shame.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    A New York-based journalist and blogger who has spent extensive time in the Middle East and is currently working on an MA thesis in Middle Eastern Studies. My thesis focuses on the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations and their coverage in the international media.

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    Contributor Since: July 2009
    Location:New York NY