Editorial: Growing Up Is Hard To Do

Teenagers are notorious for testing limits. Unbound by either the experience or cynicism of adulthood, they can produce wildly erratic thoughts and actions, some brilliant, others destructive, without a full understanding of the consequences.

Julian Assange is, in essence, a cyberteenager. His WikiLeaks was created to tell the world about the abuses of governments and politicians by publishing, or giving to others to publish, myriad documents that shed light on how policy is made. His mission appears dictated by an ends-justifies-the-means philosophy, namely, if the dissemination of material is likely to uncover and make the public aware of unlawful or illicit behavior, then he’s doing us all a major favor.

But it’s not that simple. Whereas Assange’s vision is a potentially constructive one, his is in need of some serious parental expertise and supervision.

At first, the WikiLeaks release of confidential United States government information spurred the expected responses. Free speech advocates jumped on board and criticized governmental efforts to suppress and prosecute WikiLeaks for its activities. The parallels typically made were to historic instances such as Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret report on the history of the Vietnam War (Ellsberg has in fact been a supporter of Assange’s efforts). Evan Hughes of wired.com said, “The greatest threat we face right now from WikiLeaks is not the information it has spilled and may spill in the future, but the reactionary response to it that’s building in the United States that promises to repudiate the rule of law and our free speech traditions, if left unchecked.”

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Those aligned with governmental interests for the most part condemned the nonprofit’s tactics as potentially life threatening to individuals, particularly troops in Afghanistan and intelligence officials there or in other sensitive postings, and to American foreign policy goals. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests, it is an attack on the international community.”

As the dialogue matured, however, the nuances that so often fall into the crevices of public discourse began to emerge. Sure, supporters of WikiLeaks said, we need to have public watchdogs to ensure against government abuse (a sentiment with which, as a member of the journalistic establishment, we wholly agree). Yet a lack of discretion in what was being disseminated gave pause to some of these voices.

One of the most thoughtful and analytical pieces about the quandary posed by WikiLeaks comes from, of all places, the former Soviet Union. Journalist Andrei Soldatov, who also writes for Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs and the Moscow Times, suggests that the indiscriminate distribution of information hardly comprises professional journalism. In the online English language kyivpost.com (Ukraine), writer Paul Goble draws on Soldatov and his co-author Irina Borogan in their assessment of Assange’s shortcomings:

“A few commentators have suggested that the activities of WikiLeaks should be equated with journalist activists like Seymour Hersh who wrote about torture in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad or Anna Politkovskaya who described the execution of innocent Chechens by a Russian spetsnaz officer.

“But there is a big difference. Journalists like Hersh and Politkovskaya were interested in exposing specific kinds of abuses in order to stop them. They and others like them engaged in painstaking journalistic investigative work, and they spawned followers who took up the cause to end the abuses they uncovered.”

And so the flaws in Assange’s work become fairly obvious – just because you can publish something doesn’t mean you should, and releasing billions of bits of information is no substitute for thorough and professional journalism. Perhaps call it “vigilante journalism” at best.

The direction currently headed by WikiLeaks points to the perils of its model. Assange’s nonprofit appears on the cusp of releasing damning information about Bank of America to highlight potentially bad acts by its executives.

But who says it will stop there? If Assange and Company obtained personal bank records of the execs, would they release them? What about those of middle management? Rank and file? What about Bank of America customers; would you want your financial records shining brightly on the Web for all to see? Only Assange’s presumed goodwill and a few hackers stand between you and this rather perilous outcome.

No one in this corner is advocating governmental restraint of Assange.What we do find troubling, however, is Assange’s seeming sanctimonious belief in his methods without recognition of the moral responsibility that accompanies them. He and others who adopt his model should not kid themselves that they are practicing journalism anymore than we are practicing medicine.

Assange no doubt wouldn’t see it that way. But that’s because, as everyone knows, teens don’t always listen to their parents.