At Newsweek, Ben Adler asks: why aren’t American journalists standing up for WikiLeaks. He sees three reasons:
1. Refusal to engage in advocacy: American journalists, unlike many of their foreign counterparts, have a strong commitment to objectivity and nonpartisanship. At many mainstream media organizations, signing petitions is verboten, and many journalists impose such rules on themselves. According to Shapiro, who co-wrote the Columbia letter, when they circulated the document, “Some people said, ‘As a journalist, I make it my practice never to sign a petition.’ ” As an example, Bill Grueskin, the dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s Journalism School, did not sign. Asked why by NEWSWEEK, he said he’s “not much of one for signing group letters.”
2. Opposition to Assange’s purpose: That same notion of objectivity shared by journalists makes many of them suspicious of WikiLeaks’s journalistic bona fides. Assange has an advocacy mission: to disrupt the functioning of governments. Many investigative journalists, like the famous muckrakers at the turn of the last century, have had a similar orientation, says Shapiro, who wrote the book Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years of Investigative Journalism in America. “WikiLeaks springs from the same purpose as investigative journalism: a sense that the system is corrupt and the truth can be told,” says Shapiro. “It’s a reformist rather than radical agenda.” Even so, many mainstream reporters, editors, and producers might see associating with Assange as inappropriately endorsing an advocacy mission.
3. Opposition to Assange’s methods: Some journalists, while perhaps believing Assange should not be prosecuted, are so disgusted with his approach that they are reluctant to weigh in publicly. Sam Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, did not sign the letter his colleagues circulated because, “I felt the letter did not adequately criticize the recklessness—the disregard for the consequences of human lives—of a massive dump of confidential info.” Freedman says prosecuting Assange would set a dangerous precedent for legitimate journalists. But many think, as Freedman does, that Assange did not exhibit the judiciousness that a journalist must when releasing classified information.
Some would take issue with that. WikiLeaks did, in fact, offer the State Department an opportunity to request that sensitive information be withheld. But pointing to WikiLeaks as a paradigm of a free press at work is not a position many journalists want to find themselves in. “From a legal perspective, the media may not want this to be the test case,” says Dan Abrams, NBC’s legal analyst and the founder of the Mediaite blog. “This example is almost a classic law school worst-case scenario for testing the bounds of the First Amendment. [Journalists] think it’s within his rights to do have done it, but they think he ought not to have done it. That’s the fundamental tension in the way the media’s covering the story, and the tepid defenses.”
In other words, American journalists are too objective and too highly principled to align themselves with WikiLeaks.
Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that most American journalists receive their pay checks from media corporations whose own cozy relations with the US government must not be put in jeopardy by an anarchic organization like WikiLeaks.
When self-interest and the status quo so closely coincide, why speak up? And when newspapers are constantly making staff cuts, who imagines that the fiercest advocates of First Amendment rights will also be seen as the most reliable “team players” — the ones who can be confident that they will be among the last thrown off board?