A Cozy Assumption

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.

3 Responses to “A Cozy Assumption”

  1. David44 says:

    Assange, or rather WikiLeaks, exists because of the failures of the traditional media to sufficiently expose the machinations of government.  Indeed, the classified information system is in the best interests of the media.  How does one cultivate government sources and get exclusive scoops that sell the product if everyone already has open access?
    One problem with Assange’s approach is that to the degree he weakens the authoritarian tendencies of American government by his actions, he strengthens truly authoritarian regimes (at least those that the U.S. considers enemies  as opposed to authoritarian regimes the U.S. considers allies.)   The unilateral nature of the document dumps creates a dangerous asymmetry in a multi-agent world.

  2. Huge Difference says:

    Heh, you journalists are a hoot.
    Jarvis is “famous” for his pro Iraq war blogging, as well as for his amazing success at turning an Internet / media know nothing into a CUNY prof and media go to guy for Internet / media.  But it’s a gas to listen to him now bloviate about the role of the watchdog press and the government.  Has he even changed his position on Iraq yet?
    And you’re way way better of course, since whether it’s global warming, vaccines, genetically modified foods or whatever, your default position does seem to be big government is to be trusted no matter what, and anyone skeptical, regardless of the credentials experience or whatever is most likely just a crank.
    Pro-tip: Trader Joe’s Guacamole Kit is absolutely the bestest easiest most delicious guacamole.  Dinner awaits.

  3. Dean says:

    Not sure you’re familiar with this story, but the Cuyahoga County government is deeply embroiled in a corruption scandal.  The FBI raided offices of the auditor and one of the three commissioners about 2 years ago.  Recently, the Cleveland Plain Dealer did an article on how the PD could have missed all of the corruption that seemed to be obvious to everyone that works with the county.  Here’s the results of that internal introspection:

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