WikiLeaks is on a post-election PR crusade to limit the fallout following a presidential campaign in which it became part of the story. After Donald Trump’s win, the organization once known as an equal opportunity leaker was seen as a puppet of the Russian government, releasing documents with partisan aims against Hillary Clinton.
“There is a desperate need for our work,” Sarah Harrison, a staffer at WikiLeaks, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. Last week, WikiLeaks staff held a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), inviting Reddit users to send in questions about the organization and its publication of the emails of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, during the final weeks of the campaign. WikiLeaks’s founder, Julian Assange, was not a part of the Reddit discussion; Assange’s internet was shut off in October at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been since 2012, to prevent him from interfering in the US election. Harrison and other unnamed members of the organization’s staff of more than 100 reiterated the hardline stance Wikileaks takes on “transparency for the powerful and privacy for the rest.”
But there were interesting insights into how WikiLeaks sees its relationship with the press. When asked, as if on a blind dating show, about WikiLeaks’s “most unique trait,” the staff wrote: I think our most unique trait is our ability to push the boundaries of journalism. This began a decade ago when we were founded by Julian Assange with his invention of an online anonymous submissions platform. This has now become commonplace in many newsrooms. We then pushed the boundaries of publishing in full and allowing the public direct access to the searchable archives of source documents. Along with our perfect track record in verifying documents and years of dealing with government hostility, we will continue to publish fearlessly for the public’s right to know.While some of WikiLeaks’ claims can read as arrogance—“our perfect track record”—its answer highlights an important change: WikiLeaks used to be the press’s only source for anonymously submitted online document dumps. Since then, the press has developed its own digital capabilities and a comfort with leaked material—and WikiLeaks has strayed from editorial curation and toward publishing unedited archives.WikiLeaks first emerged as an international player in 2010, when it published information on the Afghanistan war and US diplomatic cables. At the time, it was cited as a press hero, in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.
Charlie Beckett, author of WikiLeaks: News in the Networked Era (2012), argues that this era was WikiLeaks’s most effective because it worked “in tandem” with journalists, who vetted and redacted sensitive information after consulting with the US government. Journalist Craig Silverman wrote in CJR at the time that Assange had “outsourced the burden of verification” to the news organizations it worked with.But even then, Assange was well known among editors to be controlling of information and secretive himself. There was, as former Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger writes in his introduction to Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (2011), “great interest and some respect” in Assange’s work among the press. But Assange was unable to settle on a single role: was he an editor or an activist?Assange drew unfavorable comparisons to Edward Snowden, the other major leaker of this era. Snowden relinquished control of the documents he took from NSA to journalists at The Guardian, The Washington Post, and others. WikiLeaks, by contrast, retains the publishing role.Rusbridger, who later published Snowden’s documents at The Guardian, wrote that Assange was willing to don whatever outfit best served his ends: “He acts like a leaking source when it suits him. He masquerades as publisher or newspaper syndicate when that’s advantageous.”The “car crash” came, Beckett said, after Assange became angry with The Guardian for disclosing a password to WikiLeaks’s encryption. WikiLeaks moved away from working alongside journalists and stopped redacting documents. While there is no evidence anyone has been harmed by a WikiLeaks publication, there have been close calls. The organization was heavily criticized earlier this year after it *linked to the names and addresses of millions of women in Turkey. WikiLeaks offers monetary, crowd-funded rewards for certain documents, such as a copy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
For many reporters, WikiLeaks’ allegiance to its sources will sound disconsonant with journalism in the public interest. WikiLeaks denies bias itself, but without curation it is bound to adopt the biases of its sources. It is now more like a British model of publishing, suggested Beckett. In UK mainstream media, targeted stories are par for the course.Since the first WikiLeaks dump, newsrooms have become more savvy about…