December 6th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Imagine this scenario with me: someone at the State department leaks top secret information about espionage and diplomacy to the New York Times. Then would the Justice department prosecute the New York Times for publishing the information? I don’t think so. That’s not typically the way the press and the government relate to each other.

What if the official leaked the information to the Drudge Report, and online only publication? Would that be any different? No, it is still considered an institution of the free press.

What about WikiLeaks? How is it different? Did Julian Assange forget to register with the government as a licensed journalist? Oh, wait, we don’t require that. It would be a means of limiting the press.

Why is there so much talk of prosecuting WikiLeaks and no talk of prosecuting the newspapers that have published the material? Would we even be having this discussion if Manning had leaked directly to an established giant of the old media press?

Now, I’m not here arguing whether what WikiLeaks did was ethical or responsible. I don’t know whether it was. I do know that top military officials consider this leak to be significantly less damaging than the previous leak about Afghan intelligence, including Afghani informants. WikiLeaks may well have been indirectly responsible for the deaths of U.S. allies on the ground in Afghanistan. Why was there not as big an uproar then? This was surely unethical and irresponsible.

But I’m not convinced that what WikiLeaks has done is or should be illegal. Manning acted illegally, and he should be punished accordingly. Period. But we’re at best acting hypocritically if we view WikiLeaks as fundamentally different than other organs of the press. And at worse, we’re setting a precedent that will eventually infringe on the freedom of our presses.

Some newspapers report everything. Some specialize in technology. Some papers are regional. And this one specializes in leaks. Does that make it illegal?

I really don’t know. But I don’t think so. I think we’re in a national panic. Settle down, folks. It’s not the end of the world. (I only wish it were.)

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