Bloomberg and other media have reported that one of WikiLeaks’s sources may have been peer-to-peer networks. “Evidence” for this assertion comes from a private Internet intelligence company in Pennsylvania, Tiversa. Bloomberg also assembled a range of supportive quotes from supposed media advocacy organizations in Washington, all of whom sagely agree that this proves evidence of wrongdoing by WikiLeaks. The implication seems be that this is further evidence for an eventual criminal case against WikiLeaks and its high-profile director, Julian Assange.
It’s a sad, sorry spectacle. It proves exactly why WikiLeaks is so important — and exactly why the corporate media is increasingly making itself irrelevant, with sad consequences for our democracy.
Journalism by Limewire?
First, a look at the claims themselves. Supposedly, WikiLeaks is (or was) trawling for classified information on peer-to-peer networks. Well, it’s not exactly their fault that government employees are stupid enough to be sharing classified information over the Internet. This allegation is functionally equivalent to typing “Top Secret Document” into Google. In fact, if anyone’s at fault here, it’s the employees. Either they’re using file sharing at work (a no-no, I suspect), or they’re hoarding collections of secret documents on their unsecure personal computers (also a no-no, I suspect).
The evidence is not wholly persuasive, though. The leading evidence by Tiversa is that they believe a computer user in Sweden was searching for classified information, WikiLeaks is based in Sweden, and several months after they logged the searches, the classified information showed up on the WikiLeaks website.
Normally one must do better than implicate entire countries. However, Tiversa’s CEO, Robert Boback, explains that it is “highly unlikely that someone else from Sweden is issuing those same types of searches.” Of course, there are presumably more Swedes interested in government secrecy than those few confined to the WikiLeaks project. It’s beyond easy to imagine a scenario in which Person A downloaded the files, and gave them to Person B, who gave them to WikiLeaks. (This hypothetical chain can be as long or as short as the reader’s imagination demands.)
Much more interesting than the allegation itself is the rationale behind Tiversa’s intervention into the debate. Tiversa is a private intelligence company with ties to the Obama administration — Howard Schmidt advised the firm before taking up a post as special assistant in the White House. Tiversa works for private companies as well as law enforcement and other government agencies. They have not said who they did this particular work for, but they do say they have passed the information to the government to investigate further. It seems likely they were hired by the government to do the work — and it is certain that whoever hired them also approved the press announcement, meaning they have an interest in attacking WikiLeaks.
The Death of Investigative Journalism
Even more fascinating than the Tiversa story, though, is how it is being received in elite media circles. Asked to comment on the news, the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s associate director, Mark Jurkowitz, offered up his judgement that “if their information gathering doesn’t consist simply of being a receptacle for leaks but of this more aggressive effort to go out and cull this information, then you’re moving a clear step further from anything that resembles traditional journalistic practice.”
Actually, going out and aggressively searching for information is precisely the definition of “traditional journalistic practice.” It’s called investigative journalism, and it’s responsible for most of the biggest stories of the past century — and of today. The media receives its special rights in the Constitution of the U.S., and other countries, specifically because it holds the government accountable by ferreting out stories that official spokespeople aren’t willing to tell.
In contrast, it’s most of the current media (those whom Jurkowitz speaks for) who aren’t practicing “traditional” journalism. The notion that a reporter is simply a “receptacle,” waiting to pass on information whenever he or she is lucky enough to be given something interesting, is insulting to the profession and dangerous to our democracy. Re-reading press releases and replacing reporters with pundits may be cheap and profitable, but it doesn’t make for good journalism.Tweet