Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Taking a Leak

Fifty years ago, if you said, “I want to be gay,” it would have meant that you aspired to a state of happiness. Today, if someone tells you they want to be gay, it means that they are coming out of the closet. Now, the expression “I want to take a leak” is being threatened by the exigencies of modern electronic warfare carried out by digital-age mercenaries. If someone tells you they want to take a leak or informs you that something is leaking, it has nothing to do with fluids emanating from the bladder or from a pipe, it has to do with classified information being uncovered and released to an older generation of news outlets. Everyone has been wondering about the fate of objective reportage, and whether the gathering of new information will become the province of amateur bloggers who have no real experience in employing reliable sources to report stories. Though there may be some reason for consternation about the latest evolution of reporting (particularly with regard to privacy issues), the fears of amateurism may be put to rest. Where you had Woodward and Bernstein covering the Watergate scandal, now you have sophisticated hackers capable of making their way into highly classified governmental systems that an older generation of journalists didn’t even dare speculate about. As Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” First came the reporting about a US Army helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, and now comes the WikiLeak about what is really occurring in Afghanistan. “The secret documents, released on the Internet by an organization called WikiLeaks, are a daily diary of an American led force often starved for resources and attention as it struggled against an insurgency that grew larger, better coordinated and more deadly each year,” the Times reported (“View is Bleaker Than Official Portrayal of War in Afghanistan,” NYT, 7/25/10). The information, while not surprising, is striking in its detail, but more important, this is one of the clear-cut times when history is transformative in terms of information-gathering. Everyone has been wondering what is going to happen to newspapers, and which ones will start to charge for their online editions. Balderdash—for good or bad WikiLeaks is the new journalism, with transparency (a word that has also been bandied about by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) as the lingua franca and moral high ground of both political and journalistic life. Here is how the unfolding of the current front-page story is described in the print edition of the Times piece:  “The documents—some 92,000 individual reports in all—were made available to The Times and the European news organizations by WikiLeaks, an organization devoted to exposing secrets of all kinds…”

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