Almost 40 years ago, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began their now famous reporting on the Watergate break-in which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The developing story had to rely on anonymous sources both inside and outside the Nixon administration. One of those sources, famously dubbed Deep Throat, was only recently revealed to be Mark Felt. Today, WikiLeaks is practicing the art of the leak in a more sophisticated manner using electronic drop-boxes and other Internet tools. But though the methods have changed the reactions of government to embarrassing leaks predictably mimics what occurred during the Watergate controversy.
According to its Wikipedia page, WikiLeaks is”an international non-profit organization that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources and news leaks.” The WikiLeaks website was launched in 2006 under The Sunshine Press organization. It claimed a database of more than 1.2 million documents within a year of its launch. The WikiLeaks founders are described as a mix of Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians, and start-up company technologists from the United States, Taiwan, Europe, Australia, and South Africa.
The site was originally launched as a user-editable wiki, but has progressively moved towards a more traditional publication model and no longer accepts either user comments or edits. WikiLeaks has had its share of problems – financial, operational and legal. But it has managed to emerge more popular and more talked about than ever. WikiLeaks has released a wide range of information – war logs from Afghanistan, a trove of 250,000 US diplomatic cables, documents of secret deals between the US government and Japanese whalers and now it claims to have more than 500 US diplomatic cables on one broadcasting organization – Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. According to Assange, these specific cables are “insurance files” that will be released “if something happens to me or to WikiLeaks”.
Julian Assange life currently reads like a soap opera. He is accused of sexual assault in Sweden and is currently fighting extradition from the UK to Sweden. The US government is threatening legal action against the site, citing national security threats, and is claimed to be privately pressuring media companies to sever their ties with WikiLeaks. While it is not certain how the various legal actions will play out, one thing can be assured – the leaks will continue. And, as the video below demonstrates, the whole WikiLeaks drama is proving a powerful whirlpool sucking in politicians and pundits across the political spectrum.
Love it or despise it, WikiLeaks would appear to be the latest evolution in whistle blower reportage on the still rough frontiers of online journalism. Journalism is defined in part by the challenges it takes on and the boundaries it sets for itself. The WikiLeaks saga may be helping define those boundaries in the Internet age.
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