This is not an exit

The case for treating Julian Assange as a source rather than a fellow journalist

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2015 at 12:09 am
Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr user acidpolly.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr user acidpolly.

You can’t dictate the ways of the web. It’s an intrinsic truth of content production and distribution.

Publishing is among the most democratic processes there are. Hell, it’s why the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights nearly 250 years ago counted freedom of speech and the press as the highest and most inalienable of rights. It used to be that you needed to have enough money to pay for the facilities to produce your own content.

And, as well all know, the barrier to entry into the field of publishing is almost non-existent. Any man, woman or child with access to the Internet, whether it’s the public computer at a city library, a data plan with a smartphone or a Macbook or iPad, has the ability to post, posit and communicate with the outside world.

But that freedom isn’t without a cost.

Journalists are trained to be skeptical, to verify and audit information before they present it as fact. The general public doesn’t have this responsibility. It’s this lack of accountability that led people on Reddit to wildly speculate on the identity of the Boston bomber in real-time back in 2013. Ultimately, one of the students that had been anointed as a suspect was found dead in Rhode Island.

That incident has proven that when ordinary citizens are offered information without the skepticism that can only be earned as a media practitioner and the contextual background to make informed decisions about its dissemination, things can go terribly wrong.

But before that, there was WikiLeaks. Although Julian Assange deals with information that undoubtedly bears more interest to the public, his lack of respect for collateral damage — the irony of which will become evident in a moment — is what makes him undeserving of trust as a journalist.

Assange should be treated as a source by reporters and nothing more.

A journalist presents the complete picture with context and enough information to understand the events at hand. That’s the opposite of what Assange did when he released a 17-minute video of a U.S. Apache helicopter gunning down civilians in Iraq:

The video is disturbing, to say the least. What’s more disturbing is that it’s only half the story — Assange released this edited version before publishing the full version in which, as New York Times reporters found, showed that two of the men on the ground held rocket-propelled grenades.

In an interview with the Times’ Brian Stelter — which was filmed for the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times — Assange freely admits that he considers himself more an activist than a journalist. And because of that, Assange’s information should be taken as a starting point.

Hell, the Emerald has sources like this: Men and women who like to stir up controversy for the sake of riling the right people. They’re great for story leads, but toxic as sources who are trusted whole hog.

Yes, what Asssange offers the world is valuable. The diplomatic cables he released to The Guardian, The Times, Der Spiegel and other international newspapers, are essential to understanding the way the U.S. conducts business around the world.

But to dump the documents without context and a keen eye for what they all mean is irresponsible. It takes an analytical mind to put together the pieces of the puzzle and present them in a way that demands accountability from public officials rather than blind rage.

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