Who is and is not a journalist? In a hyper-connected age where anyone and everyone can become a publisher in seconds, the word’s definition seems increasingly intangible and ever-evolving.
The US State Department, however, appears to have crossed that very muddy line with its criticism of secrets outlet WikiLeaks.
Speaking to reporters recently, State Dept. Assistant Secretary Philip Rowley said that the United States does not consider WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be a “journalist” or “whistleblower.” He insisted that, under US law, he’s to be considered a “political actor.”
His criteria for reclassifying someone from protected “journalist” to a legally vulnerable “political actor”: “Mr. Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities, and I think that, among other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist,” Crowley said.
Asked what Assange’s political objective is, he replied: “I think he’s an anarchist, but he’s not a journalist.”
That seems to bump up against the opinion of Charlie Beckett, who directs journalism studies and media criticism at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In a presentation published online Friday, he argued that much of WikiLeaks’ activities meet the definition of “traditional journalism.”
The presentation is embedded below and can be viewed online at Beckett’s personal website. The slides, he wrote, were to complement a forthcoming lecture.
Update: Beckett wrote to Raw Story that his presentation “starts by saying that Wikileaks shares the characteristics of traditional journalism, but then it goes on to argue that it is doing something new. In fact, it is challenging the very basis of traditional mainstream media (and possibly mainstream politics, too).”
He added: “As for journalists having opinions or ideological motives? Well of course they all do, it’s just that some are more overt than others.”
Crowley’s statement — that having a political objective behind one’s communications disqualifies the messenger from key legal protections — would appear to implicate more than just Assange in the non-journalist arena. Two of America’s 24-hour cable news networks are explicit in their ideological bent, with one very regularly taking cues from partisan ideologues who hold obvious political objectives.
And it’s not just partisan television outlets either: many of America’s longest standing, most storied journalistic institutions occasionally act on political objective and ideological motivation. A complete list would number in the thousands.
The State Dept. position begs the question: Who else would the US consider disqualified from such a classification?
Media vs. The State
Assange, a 39-year-old Australian national, was being held in a British prison Friday, days after turning himself in on an unrelated charge of sexual assault in Sweden. Assange’s attorney pledged they would fight extradition to Sweden and claimed that the country’s prosecutor had been playing a game of “cat and mouse” with them. Documents detailing the charges against Assange have not yet been released and one of the suspects, Anna Ardin, was said to have stopped cooperating with authorities.
US officials said they were investigating whether he could be prosecuted for espionage, but US laws against such spying, written in the early 1900s, do not apply to anyone outside of government. If Assange is successfully prosecuted by the US, he would be the first foreign citizen outside of government to be found guilty of the crime in the US.
Assange and WikiLeaks maintain they did not steal secret US State Dept. cables. US Army Private Bradley Manning stands accused of stealing the information and faces a penalty of up to life in prison if convicted.
The US Supreme Court ruled in its decision on the Pentagon Papers that The New York Times was fully within its rights to reveal atrocities committed by the US in the Vietnam war, after whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg broke with the Nixon administration and went public with the secret documents.
So far, the vast majority of US diplomatic cables have been published by traditional media outlets. WikiLeaks claims to have over 250,000 such documents, less than 1 percent of which have been released.
Even if Assange is prosecuted, it’s not likely to stop the rest of the cables from being leaked. WikiLeaks remains online and new stories have continued to surface almost every hour of every day, amid what many have called the world’s first “cyber war” over their censorship.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), one of WikiLeaks’ fiercest critics on Capitol Hill, said recently that media outlets could also be investigated for reporting on the website’s disclosures.
“But whether they’ve committed a crime, I think that bears very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department,” he said.
Similarly, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) — who recently called for WikiLeaks to be classified a “foreign terrorist organization” — told Fox News on Friday that he also supports the prosecution of media outlets for their coverage of the so-called “cablegate” scandal.
This slideshow was created by British media scholar Charlie Beckett, published on Dec. 10, 2010.
Updated from an original version.