Back in my college days, if you had asked me whether I’d forever remember one particular art professor from my junior year, I would have laughed. But decades later, I still remember Mrs. Phillips. With her hair pulled back in a severe bun and her thousands of slides of famous paintings, her classes were the artistic equivalent of an endurance race. Could I stay awake long enough in the darkened room to take notes on so many paintings that would undoubtedly be included in her mind-boggling tests? Was she killing any genuine enjoyment or appreciation of art by clobbering me and my hapless peers with thousands of paintings we would be expected to recognize and analyze in her mandatory course? At the time, it certainly seemed so.
But Mrs. Phillips surprised me by having an extraordinarily liberal approach to art. She embraced new art forms with the same respect she showed to its classical ancestors. She taught us that even though we may not like something, that doesn’t mean that it’s not art.
And so, years later, I was willing to consider that WikiLeaks had a right to call themselves journalists or a news organization. Acknowledging them as journalists or news media doesn’t imply that I thought they were good or particularly proficient as journalists, but that the label was not the exclusive domain of organizations like The New York Times, Associated Press, and other long-standing organizations.
This week, I mentally joined with many others who lambasted WikiLeaks for providing an unredacted dump of over 250,000 cables they had been provided. In that one action, WikiLeaks demonstrated that not only could it not be trusted to secure any data sent to it, but they showed a callous disregard for the privacy and safety of individuals named in those cables.
WikiLeaks may try to point the finger at The Guardian for having published a passphrase to an encrypted archive on the web – a passphrase that The Guardian says it understood to be a one-time passphrase that would be of no use to anyone. But the bottom line for me is this: WikiLeaks was the steward of those cables and ultimately responsible for their security. WikiLeaks then compounded the breach by making a decision to publish everything itself, unredacted, thereby increasing the likelihood that more people would access and read those cables.
Saying “Shame on WikiLeaks” is simply inadequate. Our First Amendment protects news organizations that publish what they receive, even if the material was originally obtained illegally, so it’s not clear to me that WikiLeaks has put itself in any additional legal jeopardy than it may have already faced. But their actions have made it clear that they are not deserving of my respect as a news organization or as journalists.
If WikiLeaks can still call itself a news organization or describe themselves as journalists, so be it, and their rights as a news organization deserve a defense. No one has argued that News of the World should be deprived of the right to call itself a news organization because of the phone-hacking scandal, even though all of its actions may not be legally protected. The same should apply to WikiLeaks. Shabby journalism is still journalism, isn’t it? But as Mrs. Phillips might acknowledge if she is still alive, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.