Does WikiLeaks spell the end of the press as we know it?

WikiLeaks owes to its professional rival the fact that it has become a word on the lips
of those who would never have otherwise heard about the leaks on Julian Assange’s website


By Ben Zilcha

The blow absorbed by veteran journalism in the WikiLeaks affair is one of history’s most refreshing defeats. While the rebels stormed the walls, high-flying hysteria broke out in the hallways of the wobbly fortress. “A revolution!” shouted the newspaper editors. “A new contender for the throne, more nimble and sophisticated than we are, has administered a decisive blow.

Oil the presses and double the number of copies!”

WikiLeaks Founder John Assange

In the office next door, the marketing director was beside himself with pleasure. “Spread the news about the coming surrender!” he cheerfully ordered his staff. The television channels burnished their news divisions in light of the expected disaster. Promotion departments brainstormed over the imminent arrival of “the new journalism in all its glory!” And on Judgment Day, white flags indeed flew on the faded roofs of communications organizations, newspaper stands experienced a bustle they hadn’t seen for a long time, and viewers watched the news in unprecedented numbers, even at unpopular hours.

All that remained to be done was to summarize the fiasco in the weekend newspaper supplements, and declare in celebratory fashion: “We lost! Long live the king!” and laugh all the way to the bank.

This blessed defeat is nothing like earlier occasions when technology threatened to change the world order. Not only did the Catholic Church refrain from praising Copernicus and propagating his theory that the earth orbited the sun, but it also forbid its teaching, attacked his successor Galileo and disassociated itself from the scientific revolution, until a pope finally agreed to apologize to the Italian astronomer 350 years after he died.

The printing press, too, was not awarded a papal blessing, and for understandable reasons: After all, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention dealt a serious blow to the institution of the Catholic Church.

Yet just a few centuries later, the information revolution is getting a completely different reception. Paradoxically, the veteran communications organizations, which were supposed to fill the role of the threatened establishment and prepare to oppose Internet news bitterly, are the ones spreading the new doctrine with unbridled enthusiasm.

On the day that print and broadcast journalism might have been expected to reject one of the broadest ever invasions of its turf and the source of its livelihood, or at least wallow in shame, it decided to sound the trumpets at the coming of the conqueror, to celebrate his achievements everywhere and exhibit its own decapitated head in the town square and declare itself dead.

Paradoxically, WikiLeaks owes to its professional rival the fact that it has become a word on the lips of those who would never have otherwise heard about the leaks on Julian Assange’s website.

Partners in revolution

“WikiLeaks is like a garbage truck,” Nir Baram wrote in the Hebrew version of Haaretz last month: “It dumps its load in the middle of the street, and, at least theoretically, each passerby can stop, look and decide what interests him.”

The analogy is precise, but in contrast to the spirit of Baram’s piece, which called WikiLeaks the “most significant supplier of information in the 21st century,” and “a new phase in the history of the defense of freedom in the age of global communication,” it exemplifies exactly the reason why WikiLeaks needs the loud trumpets of the veteran media, and not the other way around.

Except for the people on that street, no one would have known about the pile left behind by the garbage truck, if establishment journalism hadn’t announced that at such and such an address it stood, on a street which is nothing other than a remote alleyway in the nearly endless cybernetic expanses, a forsaken corridor that no one crosses accidentally, or goes there unless induced to.

And even so, journalists know very well that with all due respect to the media, the soul of its readers is ancient and primitive: Journalists had to put their hands into the pile, dredge up something, offer it to the mouths of their readers and convince them to swallow the way one convinces an infant to do so. It was classic journalistic behavior. A rumor like many others was going around; it was identified as a genuine product, reproduced, disseminated, marketed and sold in millions of copies. After the event, while the king announced his downfall he was already constructing a new wing in the palace.

No, the king never intended to offer his head on a platter. Among all the rumors and piles of garbage spread over the street, journalism selects its material carefully. It jumped on Assange’s product as if it were a great treasure, because the documents on the WikiLeaks site are good journalistic fodder.

The communications agenda that presented the documents is the same old world agenda, with the same heroes and villains, and the same centers of power whose authority was reinforced in this case too. It was a scoop, but the rubric “exclusive” is after all not alien to the media, even when supplied by Julian Assange. Furthermore, the content of the documents did not threaten media organizations in any way; perhaps the opposite is the case. It was an impressive enough show to attract attention away from other subjects that were likely to be considered more subversive, those that really can upset the existing order, whose chief instigators are the media barons.

In the case of WikiLeaks, the masses can amuse themselves with an apparently dramatic change, we’ll give them the feeling they are partners in revolution, we’ll call it a media revolution, a popular uprising in which everyone may take part while sitting in a comfortable chair opposite a computer screen.

We’ll convince the masses that instead of taking to the streets, all they have to do to overturn the government is to double click on Internet Explorer.

Of course, there were no changes in consumer habits during the week the revolution took place, except for an increase in profits of the big chain stores. Most of the public did not bother to dive into the treasure they were offered at no cost, instead swarming over newsstands and staring at the television screen even more than usual in order to hear the sensational information promised by the promos.

Afterwards, everyone bathed in the fragrance of the new world, in the abundance of possibilities offered by the Internet, from the information that flows freely, without interruption, in our time, and in the end found respite again, devilishly, in the same newspaper stand at the front of the battered kiosk closest to our place of residence.

New journalism

It may very well be that Internet sites will one day take their place at center stage and save public discourse from the tyranny of newspapers and news broadcasts controlled by the wealthy. But if these sites do not offer groundbreaking content and a new agenda, there will be only a change of form and nothing more, as revolutionary as the migration of viewers from one pair of news presenters to another. They will also be forced to find a way to capture a part of the market sufficient to allow them to rule, because if they do offer a new communications agenda, as several brilliant blogs on the Internet do now, it is doubtful that the established media can save them from anonymity and make them headliners as they did with WikiLeaks.

As with earlier technological revolutions, this new journalism will not be embodied by its form, but by its content. The keypad is not a subversive factor, but rather the hand that taps on it. Just as science undermined the vision of the world offered by religion, and Gutenberg’s invention contributed to the amalgamation of dialects which shook the foundations of feudal society and brought about the Lutheran reformation at the expense of the Catholic Church, so too will the journalism which aspires to the title of the “anarchistic factor in the media world,” as WikiLeaks was termed in the Haaretz feature last month, be able to offer a new and completely different value system from the one that exists today in Western capitalist culture. No one would be talking about the print revolution now if the books had been filled exclusively with holy writings in Latin.

For the Internet to offer new journalism to the world, it must give up the utopian idea inherent within it: On the one hand, people view it a factor which can save us from the dictatorial hold of veteran media over public discourse, and on the other, it prevents us from taking the lead. In contrast to a commonly held idea, the established media does not survey reality; it sheds light on stories or creates them itself. Because its format is limited to the surface, the publicizing of moments in the time allotted to news, it is incapable of full coverage, because reality changes at a pace too frequent to meet deadlines.

The Internet, or at least the idea of the Internet, is always there, enjoying a flexibility that allows it to increase its territory. Exactly for this reason, the cybernetic utopia that so many wish for and predict cannot replace journalism. While the Internet is terrific at disseminating information and atomizing power centers, its established rival acts to concentrate information and subjugate its readers under the authority of a single story. For the Internet to take the lead on such a story, society would have to disintegrate into tiny pieces. But then established journalism would disappear in any case.




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