WikiLeaks and the trouble with transparency

By Richard Cohen
Monday, December 6, 2010; 8:00 PM

The first WikiLeaks moment occurred on Jan. 17, 1998. It was then that Matt Drudge reported that Bill Clinton had had an affair with a White House intern. The story, though, was not Drudge's. It was Michael Isikoff's. His employer, Newsweek, had delayed publication. Drudge went with it - which is to say that he reported that Newsweek had the story. It took another four days for the so-called mainstream media to catch up - a story in The Post confirmed it all. How late! How pitiful!

Now we have the New York Times publishing major parts of the recent cache of documents that it received not from WikiLeaks and its thoroughly contemptible founder, Julian Assange, but from the Guardian, a British newspaper. Assange, it appears, was chagrined by a hard-hitting Times profile of himself. But he also might have resented the Times' meddling with the earlier release of about 90,000 military documents. We won't know until WikiLeaks' internal cables are leaked.

What the Clinton scandal and the WikiLeaks disclosures have in common is a sad collapse of the mainstream media's gatekeeper role. Newsweek presumably had good reasons to postpone publication of Isikoff's story - reasons that Drudge did not share. The Times had good cause to parse the WikiLeaks cache - lives could be in danger - but Assange launched them into cyberspace anyway, not caring if American interests were damaged. In fact, that might have been the whole point.

The natural reaction is to want to pop Assange in some way, possibly by indicting him for violating the totally impractical Espionage Act of 1917 or, in the superheated imaginations of some, by declaring him a terrorist and targeting him for something irrevocable. The trouble with any of this is that you inevitably get entangled with the Times and other newspapers such as The Post, which also has devoted considerable space and talent to the stories. They all enabled Assange to reach a wider audience - raise your hand if you actually visited his Web site - and moreover gave him what amounts to a journalistic Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: See, this stuff is important.

The challenge is to keep the cure from doing less damage than the disease. Sure, some world leaders have been discomforted by what has been reported - Saudi King Abdullah should use Yiddish when he wants to speak candidly - but so far as we know no bodies have hit the floor with a sickening plop. In fact, it could be argued that the leaks in any Bob Woodward book are of greater consequence and importance than those served up by WikiLeaks. And when it comes to sheer nihilistic journalism, I refer you to the Rolling Stone story that cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his command and his career. The article contained nothing of real value concerning policy or a disagreement with President Obama. Yet McChrystal, who survived many a brush with the enemy, was brought down by a clear shot in the back.

Governments, like married couples, are entitled to their secrets - from us, from the kids and from the neighbors. Total transparency produces total opaqueness. If everything's open, no one says anything. If you want to know why there is no document detailing exactly when George W. Bush decided to go to war in Iraq, it's because of something Dick Cheney once said: "I learned early on that if you don't want your memos to get you in trouble someday, just don't write any." On Iraq, he and Bush followed that rule.

One of the juvenile joys of being a journalist used to be knowing what others didn't - the vaunted story behind the story. "You newspapermen know everything," Claudette Colbert tells Fred MacMurray in "The Gilded Lily." No more. Now, everything sees the light of day and media organizations like Gawker, journalism's own little cesspool, pay for such scoops as pictures allegedly sent by Brett Favre to a young lady of his passing acquaintance. This is not what Jefferson had in mind when he championed freedom of the press.

The WikiLeaks brouhaha will pass. Diplomats will once again be indiscreet at cocktail parties and rat out one another in the same way some people marry repeatedly, each time forever. The only thing worse than indiscretion is efforts to punish the miscreants by eroding the core constitutional right to publish all but the most obvious and blatant national security secrets. The government has to get better at keeping secrets. Muzzle the leakers - but not the press.

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