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Knight Center


Latest WikiLeaks release raises questions about publishing secret documents

Following up on its release of confidential military documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the controversial whistle-blower website WikiLeaks has published another trove of classified documents, part of a cache of a quarter-million secret U.S. diplomatic cables.

Besides prompting a crackdown on U.S. classified information and sparking calls for WikiLeaks to be prosecuted and designated as a terror group, this latest "data dump" also has generated questions about what it means for the future of journalism.

"The commercial question is whether the forest of newsprint devoted to the WikiLeaks’ revelations will actually lead to a sustained increase in circulation for the five newspapers given privileged access to the material: the New York Times in America, the Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France, El Pais in Spain and Der Spiegel in Germany," according to the Economist. "Sadly for print journalism... any boost in sales will be temporary. The trend, especially among the young, is for news increasingly to be delivered by the computer and smart-phone screen rather than by the printed page."

The Wall Street Journal delves into whether newspapers should even be printing the classified information in the first place. "The bottom line is whether publication by WikiLeaks, with amplification by the traditional news media, will advance the public interest and the First Amendment or threaten their very existence. The next several days will reveal much along these lines," Anthony E. Varona, professor and associate dean at American University-Washington College of Law, told the Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times has published responses to readers' questions about why the newspaper is publishing the WikiLeaks information. Besides contributing "to our understanding of how American foreign policy is made, how well it is working, what kind of relationships we have with allies and adversaries," the decision to run a series based on the released documents is part of what it means to have a free press in a democracy, the NYT said. "The alternative is to give the government a veto over what its citizens are allowed to know. Anyone who has worked in countries where the news diet is controlled by the government can sympathize with Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted remark that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers."

In light of an Office of Management and Budget memo directing agencies to review their handling of classified information, NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro noted that while information sharing across governmental departments increased after 9/11, WikiLeaks might have the opposite effect, ensuring "people only have access to the classified information that they need to do their jobs."

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» The New York Times (State's Secrets)


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