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Agentura.ru: WikiLeaks case highlights crisis in journalism

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Dec. 1, 2010, 6:46 p.m. | Op-ed — by Paul Goble

Paul Goble

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What WikiLeaks is doing has little in common with journalism or activism, two leading Russian specialists on the intelligence community say, but the case does highlight the increasingly serious crisis in journalism not only in the Russian Federation but internationally. In an article in “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan of the Agentura.ru portal say that the “phenomenal” attention that WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange are attracting underscores that the public around the world wants “serious information about serious events” but point out that Wikileaks and Assange are not providing that.

Indeed, “despite the declarations of Assange that WikiLeaks is a group consisting of journalists and activists, the activities of Wikileaks cannot in any way be equated with journalism,” Soldatov and Borogan say. And this group has little in common with journalistic activists in the past either.

What WikiLeaks has done is publish online a massive number of reports “without checking of the facts, without putting them in context, and without analyzing them.” Assange says that is beyond the capacity of his organization, “but for the community of professionals, this is a task that can be fulfilled completely.”

Soldatov and Borgan point out that “newspapers publish articles on the basis of documents but not documents without commentaries and not because they lack the bravery to behave as Assange has.” Rather it is because people who read their reports are interested in the analysis the journalist provides.

By definition, “a reader cannot devote to the study of a problem as much time as a journalist does,” the two investigative journalists say, and “therefore the reader trusts the conclusions and analysis of the journalist.” Indeed, “in order not to become the victim of manipulation,” the reader checks the byline because “each journalist has a reputation.”

The two journalists provide the following example of the difference in approach between Wikileaks and journalism. In its Iraq dossier, Wikileaks provides thousands of reports by American military personnel suggesting that Iran is providing arms to the Iraqi insurgents. But such reporting is insufficient.

“It is obvious that there is no possibility of trusting this information without checking.” If, for example, they say, the FSB in the mid-1990s had declared or even prepared documents saying that they had found traces of Western special service activity in Chechnya, any serious journalist would want to check such self-interested declarations.

But in the case of Wikileaks, Soldatov and Borogan continue, neither those who put the documents on line nor many of their readers seem willing to examine the content of these documents with the kind of care and skepticism that standard journalism not only encourages but requires.

A few commentators have suggested that the activities of WikiLeaks should be equated with journalist activists like Seymour Hersh who wrote about torture in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad or Anna Politkovskaya who described the execution of innocent Chechens by a Russian spetsnaz officer.

But there is a big difference. Journalists like Hersh and Politkovskaya were interested in exposing specific kinds of abuses in order to stop them. They and others like them engaged in painstaking journalistic investigative work, and they spawned followers who took up the cause to end the abuses they uncovered.

The activity of WikiLeaks “has not yet led to anything like that.” Instead, at least to judge from Assange’s comments, the group’s activities have too many and too diffuse goals to lead one to expect that Wikileaks publications will lead to the formation of any group or groups to address whatever problems are shown.

What makes the current case “interesting,” Soldatov and Borogan say, is “that not only ordinary users of the net but also leading Western publications have supported WikiLeaks.” They suggest it is hardly worth talking about the Russian media given its failure to make any use of FSB documents that were posted on lubyanskaypravda.com last summer.

According to the two Russian writers, what appears to be happening is a response to the decline in the number of and support for investigative reporters in Western countries and the frustration of many of them in that regard. Media outlets have cut staffs, and expensive investigative reporters are often the first to go.

As a result of this trend, the number of investigative articles is declining, “and the WikiLeaks site, it would appear, is filling this gap.” For some angry journalists, supporting Wikileaks is saying to their former bosses, “you didn’t want to deal with us, so you will deal with people like Assange.”

That may make some feel good, Soldatov and Borogan continue, but if one reflects on just how many documents WikLeaks has published so far, it is striking that “the picture of the world has changed not all that much.” And that in turn gives rise to a sense that something else is going on here.

“In the case of WikiLeaks,” the two Russian investigators say, “quantity has passed into quality” which makes the site “a sensation” and its founder “a star.” And that explains why so many people are following not what is posted online as much as the biography of Assange himself, “yet another testimony to the serious crisis in which journalism now finds itself.”



Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, he can be contacted directly at paul.goble@gmail.com. You can read all his blog entries at http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/


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