Jay Rosen on Wikileaks: "The watchdog press died; we have this instead."


December 2, 2010

Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, thinks aloud about WikiLeaks. He has some interesting things to say about WikiLeaks as a 'stateless news organisation'.


Hi, it’s Jay Rosen and welcome to my fourth Late Night With Press Think video. Tonight, I’m going to try to explain how I think about Wikileaks, which is certainly in the news lately.

I’ve been asked this week many times by journalists seeking interviews and others who know me whether I think Wikileaks is a good or bad development. I have to say at the start that I don’t have an answer to that and I don’t really think in those terms. The reason is not that I see the good, I see the bad, or that I have a kind of "on the one hand... on the other hand" perspective. That’s not it.

It’s more that it’s hard enough to understand what Wikileaks is. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to think about it with everything I know about the press and politics, and I haven’t gotten far enough in that to decide whether it’s good or it’s bad. So when people ask me that, I don’t have any answer. In fact, I don’t completely know what I think yet, so that’s why I’m making this video. The way I do these things is I take a subject that’s somewhat elusive to me and I make a few notes and then I try to explain how I think.

The one thing that I have said and written about Wikileaks that I think is true is that it’s the world’s first stateless news organization. What I mean by that is that all previous press companies or outfits that we know of have been formed under the laws of a given state and they reflect the culture and society of that place. The BBC is an international organization, but it was formed – created – by the British people. And the New York Times has still, despite its shrunken size, a global reach – but it is the product the United States and of New York. And it exists under the laws and traditions and press culture of a state.

But Wikileaks belongs to the internet. Not only does it not obey the laws of any one nation, not only does it exceed or secede from the press culture in the countries of the world, but it doesn’t even start where they start. So it’s a novel formation, the type of organization we haven’t seen before. That’s one of the reasons I prefer to study it more than say it’s good or it’s bad, or it should be stopped or it should be praised, or Julian Assange, the key figure, is a hero or he should be arrested and thrown in jail. I don’t participate in that because, as I said, it’s my job to try to think about, “What is this thing?”

I’m going to try to share some of my thoughts on that. It’s a stateless news organization, a novel formation. It doesn’t obey any of the rules that we have come to see as part of professional journalism.

Now, it’s important to understand that Wikileaks makes a promise to whistleblowers or leakers or the people with the goods, and this is one good way of understanding what it is, is a certain promise, or a contract.

And the contract says to people who have information, who have documents, is that you can submit these documents to us through our site, wikileaks.org, and if you do that we will encrypt them in such a way that not only will the authorities not be able to tell who you are, but we won’t even know who you are. And if we are able to verify the documents are what you say they are – that is, if you present them as diplomatic cables, they actually are diplomatic cables – then we will, after preparation and due diligence, publish them to the world. That’s the promise of Wikilieaks.

That is why it inserts itself in between sources and traditional news organizations and says to those sources who might, in the past, have had to go to the New York Times or meet the Washington Post reporter in the parking garage, it says, “Come to us instead and we’ll actually give you a better deal. And we’ll protect you. And because we’re a stateless news organization, they’re not going to be able to subpoena us or drag us into court and we won’t have to give you up because we won’t even know who you are.” That’s the promise.

Now, it wouldn’t work if the sources, the whistleblowers, the people with the documents, the people who have the goods, didn’t cooperate – if they didn’t believe it, if they didn’t agree. So one of the questions for the press in its own attempt to understand this baffling organization is, “Why do sources go to Wikileaks instead of the parking garage and the Washington post? Instead of the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel.”

And, at least in the American case, one of the reasons is that the legitimacy of the press itself is in doubt in the minds of the leakers. There’s good reason for that because while we have what purports to be a watchdog press we also have laid out in front of us the clear record of the watchdog press’s failure to do what it says it can do, which is provide check on power when it tries to conceal its deeds and its purpose.

So I think it’s a mistake to try and reckon with Wikileaks and what it’s about without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years, but especially recently. And so without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust an upstart like Julian Assange and a shadowy organization like Wikileaks.

When the United States is able to go to war behind a phony case – when something like that happens and the Congress is fooled and a fake case is presented to the United Nations and war follows and hundreds of thousands of people die, and the stated rationale turns out to be false – then the legitimacy crisis extends from the Bush government itself to the American state as a whole, and the American press, and the international system: because all of them fail at one of the most important things a government by consent can do, which is "reason giving".

I think these kinds of huge cataclysmic events within the legitimacy regime are lying in the background of the Wikileaks case. Because if it wasn’t for those things, Wikileaks wouldn’t have the supporters it has, the leakers wouldn’t collaborate the way they do, and the moral force behind exposing what this government is doing just wouldn’t be there.

I think is one of the things that makes it really hard for our journalists to grapple with Wikileaks. On the one hand, they’re getting amazing revelations. I mean, the diplomatic cables tell stories of what it’s like to be inside the government and to be inside international diplomacy, that anyone who tries to understand government would want to know, and so it’s easy to understand why the big news organizations, like the New York Times and the Guardian, are collaborating with Wikileaks.

On the other hand, they’re very nervous about it because it doesn’t obey the laws of the state, it isn’t a creature of a given nation, and it is inserting itself between the sources and the press. But I think the main reason why Wikileaks causes so much anxiety in our journalists is that they haven’t fully faced the fact that the watchdog press that they treasure so much died under George Bush.

It failed. And instead of rushing to analyze this failure and preventing it from ever happening again, instead of a truth and reconciliation commission style effort that would look at how could this happen, mostly what our journalists did, with a few exceptions, is they just went on to the next story. The watchdog press died. And what we have is Wikileaks instead. Is that good? Is that bad? I don’t know because I’m still trying to understand exactly what it is.

This is Jay Rosen of Press Think at NYU. Good night.