The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 9, 2010

CINDY'S CORNER: WikiLeaks and how real journalism should work

By Cindy Allen, Managing Editor
Enid News and Eagle

ENID — WikiLeaks.

The mere word causes an emotional reaction, depending on where you stand in the political spectrum.

We are told that the consistent mass downloading of confidential and classified materials by WikiLeaks is dangerous and has put governmental relationships and even lives in danger.

I believe that is probably true -- in minimal circumstances.

What many people don’t really understand is that a large number of “classified” documents aren’t really secret at all.

A recent Associated Press article pointed out what many of us in the journalism field have known for a long time -- sometimes classified documents contain little more than summaries of news articles and press reports. Their review of some of the WikiLeaks documents point out several instances in which the documents in question contained obvious information.

The federal government has gotten away for far too long in keeping many things secret they have no business keeping secret. Anything can be kept secret or “classified” at a powerful politician’s whim. By clamping down on information, the government has set itself up to be the victim of many a conspiracy theory. A lot of people are very suspect of the information the government is providing -- or not providing -- all in the name of national security.

Now, that doesn’t absolve WikiLeaks or media outlets participating with WikiLeaks from doing their due diligence in deciding what to report and what not to report.

In the good old days, if a news outlet had information the government had been trying to keep under wraps, editors would typically call up the government officials and request a sit down.

That is what seems to be the missing piece in all the latest WikiLeaks controversy. Who is minding the store? Who is making valid and good news judgments when it comes to providing information to the public?

News organizations and government officials have had and always will have a certain adversarial relationship with one another -- however, the public is best served when the media and government officials at least try to work together.

News organizations have an obligation to give government officials a chance to make their case before releasing sensitive information. I know the New York Times sat down with members of the Bush administration over release of some sensitive materials a few years ago. While the Bush administration didn’t want any information released, the Times made another judgment and did release information regarding the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on phone calls without a court-approved warrants.

That’s a judgment call that has to be made. News organizations have an obligation to let the government officials give a reasonable and understandable explanation of why certain information needs to remain secret. It does call for a certain trusting relationship between those news organization leaders. And, sometimes, compromise is called for.

That is where organizations like WikiLeaks can wreak the most peril. This Julian Assange guy doesn’t have any interest in trying to make good, reasonable judgments about releasing sensitive information. He is not a journalist -- he’s an Internet activist and he’s a “gotcha” specialist. He has an agenda, and that is to wreak havoc on a government or a political agenda he disagrees with.

There is no trust factor between Julian Assange and government officials. But, there should be a relationship between government officials and many of the media outlets who are partnering with Assange on this WikiLeaks deal.

Government officials will never want information to be made public. They will do all they can, including classifying things that have no business being classified, to protect themselves and their own little fiefdoms. And news organizations have an obligation to keep them accountable.

But, there are proper ways to handle sensitive information. Unfortunately, that responsibly seems to have been abdicated.

Cindy Allen is managing editor of the Enid News & Eagle. She can be reached at 548-8163 or by e-mail at editor@enidnews.com.