Should Wikileaks join the press corps?

Jack Shafer wrote an interesting article about what Wikileaks can learn from newspapers. The thrust is that by publishing unreviewed materials, Wikileaks renders itself open to criticsm, whereas papers like the New York Times — which transmuted the leaks into well-heeled news stories — are adept at wrangling tacit acceptance from government.

I don't expect the Pentagon to pin Distinguished Service Crosses on the lapels of the redacting editors any time soon, but the WikiLeaks coverage shows how conscientious the press generally is when publishing information the government would rather keep secret.

Wikileaks, in this view, needs to become a player: "Instead of having [Wikileaks chief Julian Assange] outside the tent, pissing in, government should find a way to get him inside the tent, where at least they can influence the direction of his cascade."

There's an obvious problem with that! When the press does this, it sometimes creates an appearance of improper obedience to those it reports on. One reason Wikileaks has been such a hit is because people know of the backroom negotiations between press and government that Schafer details and don't buy the idea that it serves the public trust. The fact Wikileaks can boast of so many scoops is further evidence that the press is having trouble reporting much at all that the government doesn't want you to know.

Domestic media has to think about a competitive marketplace. It has to weigh carefully the wisdom of upsetting subjects that may also be its sources. Wikileaks is somewhat insulated from these concerns, so when Schafer talks of the "horse-trading" designed to "minimize damage to national security while getting the story published," it implies a quid pro-quo that's only incidentally relevant. A 'smarter' Wikileaks may become more adept at protecting its own sources or redacting innocent names, but there's no incentive for it to adopt mainstream policies such as systematically holding off on publishing vaguely-defined 'national security' threats.

Speaking of deals, the basic form of that one — we've got something on you, let's talk before we publish — is offered every day in newspaperland. It's got nothing at all to do with journalistic conscience.

Schafer gets it, of course:

If the choice is between an operator like Julian Assange, who publishes secret documents in the raw without conversing with officialdom, and the "little dears of the Fourth Estate," who anguish over what information to publish, Deitz and his allies in the government may start waxing nostalgically for the good old days when the little dears held sway.

That term, "little dears," was used by a CIA official in 2006 to ridicule the press. It's not hard to see how the keepers of secrets all but willed Wikileaks into being.