Environment

A Cozy Assumption

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorDec 15, 2010 7:10 PM

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The WikiLeaks release of 250,000 diplomatic cables continues to discomfit many journalists. In his recent media column, David Carr writes that WikiLeaks

does not share the same values or objectives [as a traditional news organization]. Mr. Assange and the site's supporters see transparency as the ultimate objective, believing that sunshine and openness will deprive bad actors of the secrecy they require to be successful. Mainstream media may spend a lot of time trying to ferret information out of official hands, but they largely operate in the belief that the state is legitimate and entitled to at least some of its secrets.

This general assumption by Carr--that "the state is legitimate"--troubles Jeff Jarvis:

In Western democracies, we may well work under the belief that the state is legitimate, but we surely don't operate under the view that everything it does is legitimate. That is our job "” isn't it? "” to find and expose its illegitimate acts.

I think the distinction made by Jarvis is an important one and reminded me of this recent post by Jay Rosen, who helpfully reminds people of journalism's most famous low point from earlier in the decade (during the WMD reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war) when, as Rosen says:

the watchdog press fell completely apart.

Rosen's aim in his post is to frame the recent WikiLeaks story in a larger context, by recalling how

the press somehow got itself on the wrong side of secrecy after September 11.

Rosen's retelling of a chain of events related to one particularly "notorious" NYT story from this period strikes me as the kind of cautionary tale that illustrates the larger point Jarvis makes here (my emphasis):

Isn't legitimacy a moving target? We can point to those who believe the actions "” and thus the governing "” of George Bush was illegitimate as it pertained to war. Richard Nixon's governance was taken to be so illegitimate "” under pressure of journalism "” that it collapsed. Legitimacy is usually accepted. But it should not be assumed.

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