Two NYT columnists,
former constitutional law
expert shed light on issue
Journalist and former constitutional law expert Glenn Greenwald speaks at the at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona in October 2012. Click to enlarge. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
IT IS AN ISSUE that has moved to the top of the agenda in the Internet age for media professionals, the courts and every American.
Who is a journalist? The question was raised in two significant places recently in The New York Times.
In Who’s a Journalist? A Question With Many Facets and One Sure Answer it was addressed on June 29 by Margaret Sullivan, public editor at The New York Times.
The very next day, Media Equation Columnist David Carr approached it from a different angle in “Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted.”
But discussion of this issue goes back at least three years, to when Australian Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks web site burst onto the American landscape, first, by publishing a classified video shot from the inside of a U.S. helicopter gunship in Iraq.
WATCH THE VIDEO BELOW THE FOLD
As scene from “Collateral Murder,” the video from a U.S. helicopter gunship published by Wikileaks that drew the ire of the U.S. government. Watch complete video below.
SOON THEREAFTER, Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of secret American government documents, including 250,000 diplomatic cables from embassies around the world to the State Department in Washington, D.C.
We know, now, the allegedly source: Pfc. Bradley Manning is on trial in Ft. Meade, facing 22 charges, one of which – if he is found guilty – could mean life in prison.
But is what Assange and WikiLeaks did really journalism? He was just a conduit for secret documents; he didn’t really contribute any journalist value to them before publication.
However he was very clever.
He outsourced the journalism to The Guardian in the U.K. and The New York Times in America.
These two newspapers, among the best in the world, plus Der Spiegel in Germany, had one month to perform their due diligence. Which they did, quite superbly.
Assange arranged for simultaneous publication in the U.S. and abroad to, potentially, forestall a charge of espionage by the U.S. government.
Bill Keller, former executive editor at The New York Times, who cooperated with Julian Assange in the release of some of the secret U.S. government documents.
Since the information was published by The New York Times first, it could be argued that it is protected under the First Amendment; had it been published by a foreign outlet first, it might have run afoul of the 1917 Espionage Act, which is currently being used against the source, Manning.
So should Assange and his work be protected by the First Amendment? This is not a trivial question.
One of the unintended consequences has affected journalism everywhere in America.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of a federal shield law (H.R. 2102) in October, 2008. The Senate version (S. 2035) also passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee that month.
The law would have, among other provisions, given journalists some protection against being forced by the government to reveal their anonymous sources.
Despite the vigorous urging of SPJ, the bill died in the Senate around October, 2010.
Note the date.
Wikileaks published “Collateral murder” (which has had 13 million views on YouTube) on April 5, 2010. The Afghanistan war logs were exposed July 25; the secret field reports from soldiers in Iraq were published on Oct. 22, 2010. The quarter million diplomatic cables followed right after Thanksgiving.
Julian Assange as he appeared in 2010.
Many concluded that the U.S. Senate got scared it would be protecting WikiLeaks under the proposed new shield law. Senators got cold feet and the bill died.
THE ISSUE HAS RESURFACED recently in a different context.
The NYT’s Carr was reporting on former constitutional law expert, blogger, and now columnist Glenn Greenwald’s reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden, the accused spy seeking refuge in Russia.
“Mr. Greenwald is an activist who is deeply suspicious of government and the national security apparatus, and he is a zealous defender of privacy and civil rights,” Carr wrote.
“He is also a journalist.”
Is he? How can someone be both simultaneously?
Are not the two – by definition – mutually exclusive?
A journalist is supposedly objective. Activism is definitely not.
In his own defense, Carr quotes Greenwald (who now lives in Brazil) as saying:
“It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it’s a false dichotomy,” Mr. Greenwald said in a phone call from Brazil, where he lives. “It is a matter of being honest or dishonest. All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists. Journalism has a value, a purpose — to serve as a check on power.”
Thank you, Mr. Greenwald, SIR!, and David Carr for bringing some clarity to this murky issue.
It’s far from resolved, and there will be many debates ahead. But this is surely a very good place to start.
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