Is WikiLeaks More Than Just a High-Tech Brown Envelope? Yes


Mathew Ingram
Gigaom
July 30, 2010

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WikiLeaks, the crusading anti-secrecy organization that just published 90,000 pages of secret government documents about the war in Afghanistan, has gotten a lot of attention for its campaign to become the world’s repository of whistle-blowing and embargo-busting information, and leader Julian Assange has become the star of the political talk show circuit. But the most interesting thing about WikiLeaks and the release of the secret Afghan documents isn’t the details of the U.S. campaign — it’s what the incident says about the evolution of a truly distributed and dis-aggregated new media ecosystem.

Shadowy sources have been disclosing secret information of all kinds to newspapers and magazines for decades, ever since Watergate made it seem like a public service to do so. But in this case, there was a middleman in the process, and one with a considerable amount of power — far more than any other source in a similar situation. WikiLeaks didn’t get the documents directly, but was given them by another unnamed source (possibly Bradley Manning, who was the source of an earlier secret video of a U.S. military attack on civilians in Iraq). The site then proceeded to broker a deal with the New York Times, The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, whereby the media outlets could have access to the documents and publish stories based on them simultaneously. Columbia Journalism Review has a detailed step-by-step account of how it happened.

Not everyone thinks WikiLeaks represents a fundamental transformation of journalism in the Internet age, mind you. Doug Saunders, the European bureau chief for the Globe and Mail newspaper, said on Twitter that “Wikileaks gave us the War Logs scoop in same way the brown-envelope industry gave us Pentagon Papers or parking garages uncovered Watergate” (although he later conceded that WikiLeaks was “a useful vehicle”). But comparing WikiLeaks and what it was able to accomplish to a source with a brown envelope in a parking garage — as Deep Throat was for the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal in the 1970s — misses the larger point.

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