Yesterday, former U.S. soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified U.S. government documents to Wikileaks. Journalists and news outlets owe Manning more than gratitude. We owe her the truth: in a just world, we'd be in the cell next to her.
News, real news, requires a source. It doesn't matter if you call them a whistleblower, or a leaker, or another word shaded either towards or away from heroism. They are people who have information that is not public. The fact that it is not public— that it is a secret—is what makes it news. “News is what somebody does not want you to print," the old saying goes. "All the rest is advertising.”
Media outlets, and journalists, are in the business of disseminating news (and cat photos) to the general public. That is how we make a living. We pay our rent by, essentially, sharing things that someone wants to keep secret with the wider world. The media does not fear publishing secrets; we seek it out. Any decent reporter anywhere views a source willing to share a secret as a great gift. The source and the media are the two parts of the machinery of sharing news—secrets—with the world. We are symbiotic. We are, at least for the length of a story, a team. We work together to see to it that secrets become public. And each of us takes our reward. The source takes moral satisfaction, or political or personal gain, or one of a million other things that can motivate people to leak. The media takes glory, and self-righteousness, and money. The public reaps the benefits of a free press. It's a system that's worked for quite a long time.
Though the media and their sources both want to see news come to light, there is one big difference between them: the media is a powerful institution. Sources are not. Sources are disparate individuals with varying interests. The media is a vital social structure with well-established legal protections, and with the means to fight back strongly against any threats against it. "Never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel," goes the other old saying.
What this all means is that while the media and the source are equally morally responsible for the publication of a story, the media is (relatively) protected—by law, by resources, by institutional privilege, and by the ability to drum up public outrage—and the source is not protected at all, except by anonymity. If they are discovered, they are out of luck. So Chelsea Manning is sentenced to 35 years in prison, and all of the news outlets around the world that published hundreds and hundreds of stories based on the information that she disclosed shrug and carry on with their day. Sources bear all the risk, and the media reaps all the rewards, even though both are equally necessary in the process of making secrets public. This is accepted as the normal state of affairs. The media shrugs and carries on with its day. Of the largest newspapers in America, neither
the New York Times [they did], nor the Wall Street Journal, nor USA Today could even be bothered to run editorials commenting on Manning's sentence. The Los Angeles Times did. They called the 35-year sentence "reasonable."
Thirty five years in a hole, for being a source on a story that any decent reporter in this world would have loved to publish. No consequences whatsoever for publishing the stories. This strikes powerful media outlets as fair and just. That is not a principled stand for freedom of the press; that is cowardice. That is a willingness to let someone else hang for an act in which you yourself participated. (I should note here that the farcical attempt to concoct some hair-splitting definition in which Wikileaks is not part of the media is farcical. Welcome to the internet age, when there are millions of online publishers, one of which is Wikileaks. Manning was a source, and Wikileaks was the outlet, and every other big traditional news outlet jumped right on board as soon as the story broke, and all of us should have the balls to admit that we're all in this together. The fact that Julian Assange may have an objectionable personality is irrelevant, and bringing it up as if it's germane is childish. When it comes to this particular story, the only meaningful difference between Wikileaks and the New York Times is that the Times acted much more feebly.)
We in the media sometimes like to act as if we are holy referees, perched impartially on a hill overlooking the world, issuing judgments from on high, rightfully controlling the flow of all information due to our noble wisdom. This pose serves our interests. It is also false. The media likes to pretend as if its acts stand outside the realm of the ethical and political. They don't. Publishing leaked secrets constitutes a moral judgment: the judgment that the public's right to know what its government is doing is more important than the government's right to deprive the public of information in order to protect the government's own interest. This judgment happens to be true. But it is a judgment nonetheless. Governments will never stoop trying to protect their own interests. There is nothing wrong with the media using the power it has to actively fight against that tendency. Yes, it is political. Such is life.
The U.S. media hates to be seen as taking a political stand, and it also hates to be seen as working as some sort of unified front, rather than as a collection of fiercely independent competitors. But sometimes you have to give in to reality. When the government is throwing sources in jail for 35 years for leaking information, the media should be compelled to stand up and say, "No, that is not okay. No, that is not justice. No, that is not a fair use of government power. No, that is not an acceptable precedent in a free society. And yes, we will use the vast and powerful resources at our disposal to try to remedy this situation to the best of our abilities, because to do otherwise would be craven and cowardly. We are in this together."
If journalists and publishers and media executives were facing 35 years in prison for publishing secrets, you can bet that their dormant sense of social justice would be activated lickety-split.
[Image by Jim Cooke. Photo via AP]