Can a Journalist Have a Political Objective?

Public officials reeling from the first round of diplomatic cable releases are trying to find as many ways to fight WikiLeaks as possible. A major area of attack seems to revolve around defining what is truly journalism versus what may be subject to censorship.

US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley is trying to delegitimize the speech that WikiLeaks is engaged in. According to CNN (“McCain presses for accountability in WikiLeaks breach,” Dec 2) he said that WikiLeaks spokesman Julian Assange “could be considered a political actor. I think he’s an anarchist, but he’s not a journalist.” Crowley went on to say:

Mr. Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities and I think that, among other things, disqualifies him from the possibility of being considered a journalist…

He’s not an objective observer of anything. He’s an active player. He has an agenda, he’s trying to pursue that agenda and I don’t think he can qualify either as a journalist on the one hand or a whistle-blower on the other.

Because Assange is an “active player” pursuing a political agenda and not an “objective observer,” Crowley says that the protections afforded to journalists should not apply to him or the organization he represents.

But a truly objective observer can’t really exist. The best a journalist can do is try to be as unbiased as possible and present objective facts to the best of his ability.

When American news media features entertainment news while their foreign counterparts highlight US policy disasters, this is an example of bias. Editors’ views on what is most important will be colored by their perceptions. This is why it is important to have multiple news sources and broad access to data.

What if political beliefs inspire people to start a competing news service because they don’t like the way news has been prioritized in established venues? Are they not journalists?

Julian Assange and the rest of the WikiLeaks staff play an editorial role in the public distribution of information. They make information accessible to the general public and give news to prominent media. The US internet user can read their Cablegate files as easily as a foreign intelligence analyst can.

WikiLeaks is clearly presenting information that interests a large segment of the public. And it presents it in the form of raw data, which is as objective as news can be. While the choices made by WikiLeaks staff about how data will be presented to the public do involve personal priorities, this is no more biased than the arrangement of articles in a newspaper or the length of time a news broadcast spends on a story.

Whatever political motivation Assange has (and it does appear that his views are close to anarchism), it has not compromised the ability of WikiLeaks to present credible information to the public. WikiLeaks has neither promoted falsehoods nor tried to spin events into any favorable narrative. It does not need to make compromises to obtain sources through official channels, as its reputation for credibility, accessibility, and protecting sources means that anybody within an organization can pass along inside information.

Crowley says that because Assange is actively pursuing an agenda, he cannot be a whistleblower or a journalist. Having an agenda couldn’t really disqualify Assange from being a whistleblower, since a whistleblower almost by definition has an agenda. But could Assange’s political agenda prevent him from being a journalist? Only if the success of his agenda requires distorting the truth.

If a reformer’s dedication to exposing corruption leads to his discovery of backroom deals that others have overlooked, he has done good journalism. Similarly, if Assange’s agenda is to “undermine the international system,” as Crowley puts it, the truthful revealing of bad behavior that governments hide would indeed be journalism. If Assange believes that revealing the truth will create support for his political agenda, then he can be a reliable journalist with a political agenda.

Crowley’s remarks are especially out of touch in an era of citizen journalism. Should every blogger, YouTube uploader, or podcast producer complete a loyalty oath before being allowed to distribute information? Journalism, like any craft, may continue to have specialists, but amateurs should not be prohibited from participating.

Critics of WikiLeaks decry its staff’s motivations, its spokesman’s unrelated alleged crimes, and its ability to resist persecution. All this noise is meant to drown out the issues they don’t want to face: WikiLeaks is a reliable source of news that makes them look bad.

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