Wikileaks and the New Fourth Estate

12/06/2010 10:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I think I now understand why the commercial media has turned out such a unanimous show of support for government secrecy: the so-called Fourth Estate, as the American press is known, has gone from being a notional fourth branch of government to being a literal one. The same corporations that buy our politicians now own the journalists. So the press no longer has an antagonistic relationship with secrecy, concentration of power, and corruption. The press is on the inside, and it likes how that feels.

Thirty years ago, the vast trove of material revealed by Wikileaks -- diplomatic cables and similar ephemera -- would have spawned outrage among journalists: not at Wikileaks, but at the content of the material. It's a ghastly stew of petty cloak-and-dagger and bureaucratic ugliness, in which float occasional lumps of genuine evil. A properly motivated Fourth Estate would be dissecting this stuff night and day, following every promising lead to see who can land the next pillar-toppling scandal.

So why has the story instead become a breathless narrative of governments pursuing Julian Assange, master of Wikileaks and supervillain, around the world? Because the media will do anything they can to avoid getting their hands dirty with the appalling implications of what our diplomats have been up to. Mainstream journalists may be quietly examining this material for stories, but if they are, that's not what they're saying now. Instead, they're cheering on a manhunt that could end in assassination.

This is as revealing as anything contained in the diplomatic cables. It shows just how bought-and-sold our media have become. The real story here story isn't whether it's illegal to reveal secret government communications, or whether we need a raft of new laws to keep things hidden. The story is what our government has been hiding from us. American citizens have been played for a patsy.

We're told our enemies are our friends. We're stabbing our real friends in their backs. We're told our nation is doing things for one reason, when it's doing them for another, nastier reason altogether. And the cables show that the secrecy surrounding all this duplicity is as shallow as a tea-saucer. Any Washington journalist with even a modicum of access must know, more or less, that all of this is happening, and how things stand. But they have, with precious few exceptions, toed or toadied the official line.

You can see why mainstream journalists hate Wikileaks. In exposing so much, it has also exposed the media for what it is, where government is concerned: a giant smokescreen-generating machine.

Here's the good news. The establishment's ham-handed response to this crisis, with its attempts to stuff the genie back in the bottle by attacking servers, shutting down websites, and issuing crude demands for compliance from mirror sites and so forth, reveals that it has no idea how the internet works, or how to manipulate it. In other words, the internet is the new Fourth Estate.

Forget professional corporate journalists. They're telling you what the ribbon and wrapping paper looks like. Meanwhile, millions of individuals out there in the world are finding ways to see what's inside the box. The idea that this stuff can be suppressed is ludicrous. It's utterly impossible. The fact that our power elite is trying to do so simply reveals how outclassed they are. Take down Wikileaks, murder Julian Assange, and a thousand more outlets for this kind of material will appear. "I am Spartacus," the cry might as well become. Whatever happens, we're going to have a world of Spartacuses from now on. And this is a good thing.

Humiliating and damaging to American interests as the leaked cables may be, they reveal a government that believes itself to operate autonomously from the people, unaccountable to popular opinion, truth, or consequence. This is what habitual secrecy does to an organization. America was founded on the opposite notion: a brawling, informed public would keep the government honest, even if Washington ended up infested with career politicians and moneyed insiders. It was understood that the press would act as the conduit between what the government was up to and what the public knew. It was understood that a journalist's career could be made by exposing wrongdoing to light.

Now that major media outlets are just sub-assemblies in immense money-making engines that also manufacture weapons, drugs, crude oil, insurance policies, for-profit prisons, bad loans, and all the rest of what ails us these days, the press can no longer do its traditional job. Journalists aren't rewarded for keeping the government honest any more. They're rewarded for sticking to the corporate PR.

About all the mainstream media are good for any more is to give us celebrity scandals, weather, traffic reports, and box scores. The once-dangerous watchdog of government isn't just asleep, it's dead. But there's a new paradigm emerging for how the truth will get out. No amount of bureaucracy or money can still the voice of every conscience inside the secret apparatus of power. It was conscience that got this material revealed, but it could have been jealousy, revenge, or any other basic human motivation. As long as human beings are working the machine, they will reveal information about it. And if they have somewhere other than the failed American press to reveal it, our citizens will find out what's really going on.