Leaks, of course, have always played an important part in journalism, but this direct-to-the-public approach championed by WikiLeaks (sometimes, but not always, with the help of major media) is new. It's both promising and threatening, especially to journalists, officials and the usual sources who have long played, and enjoyed, their exclusive role as gatekeepers. Now there's a new kid on the block.
Or rather, kids. Even the New York Times may join numerous smaller, far flung operations in launching their own platform, portal, "drop box" or "lock box" for leaks. If this notion continues to spread like wildfire, it might put WikiLeaks out of business, but it would still be The Age of WikiLeaks, the title of my new book.
Word had emerged about the time of the Cablegate release that WikiLeaks would soon have at least one competitor or, if you will, co-conspirator, called OpenLeaks, launched by Assange's former spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg. He said that, unlike WikiLeaks, it would not be saddled with political pronouncements and would not publish documents itself, only act as a pure source. Other groups formed around certain subject areas, such as EnviroLeaks, or in specific countries (from Indonesia to the Czech Republic). Al Jazeera, without much fanfare, launched what it called a Transparency Unit where leaks could be funneled.
But even if the number of leaks exploded, would mainstream news outlets spend the time and money (and take the risks) to accept, study and publish them? This seemed to be answered when news outlets around the world, well beyond the original five, ended up with some or all of the Cablegate cache and started publishing the ones relevant for their audiences. WikiLeaks announced it was looking for several dozen more outlets to speed up the process of publishing the, oh, 247,000 remaining cables.
Then, dramatically, Al Jazeera, sharing its first massive leak with the Guardian, on January 24 broke the bombshell "Palestine Papers" package based on confidential documents, which had arrived at its new Transparency Unit, related to Israel-Palestinian-U.S. negotiations going back to the (Bill) Clinton era.
That, naturally, inspired speculation about the leak phenomenon now spreading far beyond WikiLeaks. New Yorker writer Raffi Khatchadourian on January 24 posted an article at the magazine's web site titled, "A WikiLeaks Arms Race." He recalled that he had previously observed "that WikiLeaks was increasingly adapting to the standards of conventional journalism in its editorial policy. The emergence of the Transparency Unit suggests that an opposite trend may also be slowly at work."
Then he asked:
"Has Al Jazeera taken the first step in a journalism arms race to begin acquiring mass document leaks? It would be surprising if other large news organizations are not already at work on their own encrypted WikiLeaks-style portals. The New York Times and the Guardian, for instance, have every incentive to follow in Al Jazeera's footsteps and give people a way to submit sensitive material directly to them rather than through an intermediary, such as WikiLeaks. If they aren't doing this, they most likely will start doing it eventually..."
The article prompted Michael Calderone at Yahoo! to call the New York Times executive editor Bill Keller for comment. And, lo and behold, Keller said that at his paper, "A small group from computer-assisted reporting and interactive news, with advice from the investigative unit and the legal department, has been discussing options for creating a kind of EZ Pass lane for leakers." He said he couldn't go into details, "especially since nothing is nailed down." But asked if he could envision a system like Al Jazeera's Transparency Unit, Keller said the Times was "looking at something along those lines."
The following day, the Times posted Keller's introduction, obviously written days or weeks before, for its upcoming e-book on WikiLeaks. One would hope Keller felt a bit embarrassed to have written in this piece, "Frankly, I think the impact of WikiLeaks on the culture has probably been overblown... Nor is it clear to me that WikiLeaks represents some kind of cosmic triumph of transparency." Now, here he stood, hoping to launch the Grey Lady's own WikiLeaks generator.
Every day, almost every hour, now brings news of fresh leak initiatives. GlobaLeaks arrived, calling itself "a project to create a worldwide distributed Leak Amplification Network supporting whistleblowers all around the world." The City University of New York's (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism unveiled a "drop box" for leaks, an anonymous leak submission unit that allows users to submit tips to over 1400 local and state news organizations, as a feature of its MediaLobby project.
To be honest, like Khatchadourian, I haven't completely thought through what that change would mean. But, as he puts it, "for the moment, no matter what the outcome, it is hard not to expect greater convergence between old and new media in a way that will strengthen the journalistic project overall."