How much we truly believe in a free and open society is revealed when the freedom to publish causes trouble for our government.
The WikiLeaks release of American diplomatic cables tests that belief. It reveals contradictions in our view of the role of journalism.
We believe in the idea of a free press; but we oppose it in practice when the press offends our patriotism or works against some vaguely defined “national interest.”
The role of a free press is not to serve the government or its diplomats. It is to serve the public who hold government accountable through information provided by the media.
Throughout history, journalists have caused their governments trouble and embarrassment. In my view, journalists are properly patriotic when they write critically of government, when they reveal their hidden strategies, when they embarrass their government in front of the world.
For journalism, criticism is patriotism – that’s the way journalists serve their public, despite howls of outrage from citizens who embrace a narrow, authoritarian form of patriotism.
Two things at once
If we care about the freedom to publish we need to do two things at the same time: First, protest attempts to shut down WikiLeaks.
We should insist that public institutions, such as libraries, not refuse to link to WikiLeaks or in any way refuse to provide access to stories on the cables. Maybe news organizations who say they support WikiLeaks’ whistleblower journalism should consider hosting the site?
Second, we need to urge Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, to explain the ethical principles that guide his decision to publish. Is he committed to simply publishing any and all secrets regardless of the consequences? Or is he willing to adopt the responsible approach of the New York Times and The Guardian to their stories on the cables. Is he willing to balance the freedom to publish with the principle of minimizing harm?
Minimizing harm does not mean not damaging the public profile of government. It means not naming informants, human activists, or innocent third parties if that would prompt reprisals. It means not providing detailed information that would help terrorists attack a public institution.
Organizations like the New York Times are serious about responsibly vetting their stories on the cables. I am not so sure Assange or WikiLeaks has the same concern.
This issue worries me because public support for this form of journalism will turn swiftly against it should future releases lead to the death of a third party, or lead to a terrorist attack. The best way to retain support for a free press is to act responsibly, and to be seen to be acting so.
Is ‘responsibility’ a declining concept?
From an ethical perspective, what is new about the emergence of WikiLeaks is not just that new technology allow citizens to gather and publish secret material globally — new publishers that are difficult to control.
What is new is that the idea of responsible journalism comes into question.
The principle of minimizing harm, as supported by professional journalism ethics, may be dwindling in importance.
Right now, the data is provided by WikiLeaks and professional journalists write the stories. But in the future, the role of professional journalism in such releases may decline.
As new web sites spring up, each pursuing their ends with the passion of activists, the idea of a free and responsible press may seem irrelevant. The idea of ethically restraining the freedom to publish may recede into the rear view mirror of history.
I hope not.