A Seattle Take on Wikileaks

The Wikileaks “Cablegate” saga has definitely shaken up the beehive, instigating a wide range of strong opinions ranging from calls to execute those responsible for treason (Mike Huckabee), to calls to execute cyber attacks against companies who cut ties with the organization (which took place against Visa and MasterCard by hacker group Anonymous).

Seeing that the controversy hit close to home here in Seattle (Amazon dropped hosting of the site and Tableau cut off graphical information) it was appropriate that we came together for a public forum thrown together in record breaking time thanks to the hard work of Hanson Hosein, Director of the Masters of Communication in Digital Media program at the University of Washington.

Hosein moderated a three person panel featuring:

Mike Fancher, Former Executive Editor at The Seattle Times
Brett Horvath, Director of The Leaders Network
Sarah van Gelder, Editor-in-Chief, Yes! Magazine

The energy of the room was lively, with tweets flying in fast, and each pass of the microphone opening up a new can of worms that could merit a forum of its own.

Many angles to the story were discussed; here are some highlights:

The media coverage

  • Is it a distraction to focus on the personality of Julian Assange and the details of the rape charges rather than the disclosures themselves?
  • Horvath asserted that the media are not paying enough attention to important revelations made in the documents such as the Shell’s powerful relationship with the Nigerian government and the U.S. government’s manipulation of Copenhagen climate change talks.
  • Others disagreed, @lizzyleehunter spoke up from the audience to say that rape is a serious charge and Assange shouldn’t be let off the hook. She also wrote on Twitter that “both #Wikileaks and Assange deserve scrutiny–and lots of it.”
  • Van Gelder from @yesmagazine railed against the mainstream media for “taking the kool-aid” and stepping in line with those in power rather than speaking up against abuses. She said the media have so much anger toward Assange, which implied the point that they are lashing out against him because he’s doing the job that they should be doing.

The government’s response

  • Horvath had strong feelings against Joe Lieberman’s actions to go after Wikileaks and companies who have associations with them. He spoke specifically of Lieberman’s remark about investigating the New York Times, saying that “when one Senator can pressure the New York Times and say ‘you can’t do those things’ that’s a real problem.”
  • Brian Rowe, a guest faculty member at the Information School at University of Washington, made a well received comment that highlighted two points on the issue
  1. The government should not throw the baby out with the bath water by passing a USA PATRIOT Act type law to go after Assange.
  2. We should focus on building legal solutions that achieve the goals of transparency, similar to how iTunes managed build a legal alternative to the file sharing of copyrighted music. (here’s a post that mentions Muckrock, an organization trying to do just that using our Freedom of Information Laws)

The debate of government transparency versus secrecy

  • There was definitely some back and forth. Horvath made a point that while he believes in “radical transparency,” that’s different from “insane transparency. ” For example, we shouldn’t share nuclear secrets or post every text message sent by government officials.
  • Van Gelder noted that there is an essential difference between individual rights and government transparency, where government has a great deal of power that individuals don’t have and therefore require greater scrutiny.
  • As could be expected, nobody reached any sort of conclusion on how to strike the right balance. One member of the audience, Brian Sollum (@S8Ronin) was more defensive of the government’s right to keep information secret, speaking from a background as a former Intelligence officer and Assistant Director of the White House Situation Room.

The new age of Journalism and its changing role

  • This is where Fancher’s background served the discussion well. He noted the drastic change from the past, where he used to have the luxury as a newspaper editor to decide when to break a story without people on the internet questioning their integrity and making accusations about how they handled the situation.

The take home message?

I saw one tweet criticizing the panel for being all pro-Wikileaks, which is too easy of a conclusion. One thing I learned from the discussion was that this isn’t a black and white pro/con issue. All three panelists seemed to share similar sympathies toward protecting free speech above concerns of national security, but two of them mentioned that they didn’t necessarily support Wikileaks itself.

I’m sure most people will agree it’s a good thing for us to know via Wikileaks that our tax dollars went to a private security company who “Helped Pimp Little Boys To Stoned Afghan Cops.” At the same time, those same people could easily disagree with Wikileaks’ decision to reveal a list of U.S. Strategic sites, which could be targets of terrorism.

As Horvath pointed out, the ultimate question is who decides?

You can watch the entire event on the MCDM’s Livestream page, or catch the play by play action on twitter here (hashtag #opensecrets).


About Jacob Caggiano
JACOB CAGGIANO is the Council’s Communication Strategist. It’s his job to pitch ideas and get audiences to latch on. He also dedicates long hours behind the scenes working with the website, the Washington News Lab, and other experiments designed to change the way we interact with news and information. Connect with Jacob in the Washington News Council Community.