Do we hold the state to be legitimate?

David Carr wrote in today’s New York Times:

“Mainstream media may spend a lot of time trying to ferret information out of official hands, but they largely operate in the belief that the state is legitimate and entitled to at least some of its secrets.”

In Western democracies, we may well work under the belief that the state is legitimate, but we surely don’t operate under the view that everything it does is legitimate. That is our job — isn’t it? — to find and expose its illegitimate acts.

I do not think I can accept as journalistic canon the idea that reporters and editors in every nation should view their states as legitimate. To the contrary, we root for them to challenge the legitimacy of illegitimate states; don’t we expect them to be the first, best hammer on the walls of secrecy built by the tyrannical and the corrupt?

Isn’t legitimacy a moving target? We can point to those who believe the actions — and thus the governing — of George Bush was illegitimate as it pertained to war. RIchard Nixon’s governance was taken to be so illegitimate — under pressure of journalism — that it collapsed. Legitimacy is usually accepted. But it should not be assumed.

Implicit in what Carr writes and in what those he quotes say is this notion that what separates professional, institutional journalism from Wikileaks — and, by extension, anarchy — is that it accepts the legitimacy of the incumbents:

“‘WikiLeaks is not a news organization, it is a cell of activists that is releasing information designed to embarrass people in power,’ said George Packer, a writer on international affairs at The New Yorker. ‘They simply believe that the State Department is an illegitimate organization that needs to be exposed, which is not really journalism.’”

That’s a troubling line to draw and too close to the truth today that news organizations too often side with the powerful, with the legacy.

I do believe that governments do need secrets, but as I’ve written, the problem Wikileaks exposes is that government is too often secret by default and transparent by force when it should be transparent by default and secret by necessity.

Separately in Carr’s piece, I was sorely disappointed in Columbia J-school Dean Nick Lemann’s continued insistence — since 2006 — in trying to fan the flames of a blogger v. journalist war that never broke out: “People from the digital world are always saying we don’t need journalists at all because information is everywhere and there in no barrier to entry.” Name, two, Dean.

  • http://www.lippmannwouldroll.com Matt Schafer

    It is clear that Wikileaks is not a destination website, which automatically makes it dependent on the larger platforms of the mainstream media–not to mention the increased exposure from other media outlets that are influenced by media outlets like the Times.

    What is unclear, however, is how both old and new media—especially in the case of Wikileaks and legacy media—will work together, and how each organization’s motives will wash with the others. As one political scientist said, the interesting dynamic is not a result of technological differences (i.e. old media/new media rivalries), but instead differences in their missions as organizations. Indeed, Wikileaks and The New York Times are not bound by the same journalistic covenant, and it is unclear if and when those differences will compromise their relationship.

    Wikileaks’ full impact will not be felt for years to come, just as the press’ failings during the run up to the Iraq War went unnoticed for several years. Nonetheless, for better or worse, Wikileaks is challenging those in the United States to come to terms with the theory of the freedom of the press versus the actuality of the freedom of the press. It’s easy to embrace the theory. It is far more difficult to deal with the actuality, but it is the price we have agreed to pay for a free and open information culture.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/gov2 Alex Howard

    I’ve heard people say that if Wikileaks were to publish the kinds of data that it has released in the past two weeks – and it were from China, Russia or Burma – it would be the darling of the human rights community. And it is perhaps useful to recall that for years, Wikileak was in fact an award winning.

    Then the organization turned to leaking information that’s at least relevant to national security during war time, as Carne Ross emphasized last weekend at the PdF Internet freedom forum in NYC. (It was good to see you again, professor; thank you for the compliment about the tweets.)

    Packer’s quote lingered for me as well. While the word “cell” carries a connotation that perhaps unfairly calls to mind terrorism, the distributed organization of Wikileaks isn’t so far off in applying the metaphor.

    Journalism acts as a crucial check on power in market democracies. Freedom of the press matters, with respect to protecting that role. In autocracies, petrocracies or kleptocracies, journalists don’t generally survive to report on waste, fraud, corruption or national security mistakes. Or they know better than to report on what’s actually happening, if they’re to continue broadcasting or publishing. One look at the mortality rate of journalists in countries without press protections drives that point home, as Reporters without Borders recounts.

    One question to ask, and one you only brush against here, is whether you think that Assange himself wants to be a check on power — or to ultimately see the state be itself brought down? What he’s written suggests that his goal may not just be a matter of accountability and reform.

    Journalists reporting from war zones or from within repressive regimes are brave foreign correspondents to the much rest of the world. To those who monopolize power in a given geography, they become enemies of the fallen state by doing so.

    Closer to home, it’s worth asking whether someone supports accountability for those in power, or whether they question, as you say, the legitimacy of the institution itself.

    People of good faith can disagree about whether a diplomat or policy is working in the national interest. Whether the institutions that house them should exist at all if another matter entirely.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Journalism acts as a crucial check on power in market democracies.

      Does it? (Don’t confuse goals with reality.)

      > Closer to home, it’s worth asking whether someone supports accountability for those in power, or whether they question, as you say, the legitimacy of the institution itself.

      Does said “someone” include journalists?

      > People of good faith can disagree about whether a diplomat or policy is working in the national interest.

      Can we ask the same question of specific journalists?

  • Craig Roth

    I’m having a little trouble parsing that last, 3-word, sentence. Is it a typo, and you were actually asking Dean to “name two”?

  • Brock Ducharme

    The government and the press are taking pains to make it sound like Wikileaks has done nothing but release nuclear launch codes or something. This might bring into question this issue of a government’s natural right to maintain such things in secrecy for the common good of the world. Surely, if we’re to have nuclear weapons, nobody wants that information to be part of a demonstration based on journalistic principle if the result is mass killing.

    Of course, that’s not at all the type of information revealed. How, for example, is it a government’s right to conceal the fact that it knows a major African nation is controlled lock, stock and barrel by an international petroleum company with which it does business? How is it the natural right of any government to withhold the revelation that the U.K. deliberately cut its Iraq inquiry short to keep from embarrassing the United States? And why is Julian Assange doing anything reckless by revealing that U.S. defense contractors hire dancing boys in Afghanistan that are typically used for rape when the party is done?

    Around the time of the Magna Carta there was a recognition that states borrow their legitimacy from the people they claim to represent. It would be a shame if we lost sight of that principle so many centuries hence.

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  • A. Nonymous

    >>>“People from the digital world are always saying we don’t need journalists at all because information is everywhere and there in no barrier to entry.” Name, too, Dean.

    And this is why he writes for the New Yorker and you run a blog about bits having rights.

  • http://aqualung.typepad.com/aqualung/ Ric

    In a democratic country with at least relatively free and honest elections we CAN (I believe) accept that the state has some legitimacy. But given the sporadic/periodic nature of most elections there needs to some oversight and testing of that legitimacy so that voters are at least informed enough to hold the state to account. We can’t assume that state legitimacy persists automatically – the state needs to demonstrate that we can continue to accept its legitimacy … and the easiest way to do that is transparency. Any unnecessary lack of transparency weakens legitimacy because it reduces trust.

  • A. Nonymous

    >>>Name, two, Dean.

    If you’re going to fix this, at least take out the extra comma. The first time, it’s obvious you’re in a hurry. The second, we start to wonder.

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  • Rick

    Just saw your you in your appearance at PdF Presents: A Symposium on Wikileaks and Internet Freedom

    GREAT WORK.

    BUT……… I really think you are putting way too much stock in the value of SECRECY.

    This is a deep interview with a former MI5 MI6 operative turned spy novelist, John le Carre.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_le_Carr%C3%A9

    http://www.democracynow.org/2010/10/11/exclusive_british_novelist_john_le_carr

    http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/5894

    “For a person that has no faith in life, truth is not a useful weapon.”

    David Cornwell 1996

    “Secrecy is the enemy of truth and the stepladder for the incompetence. The taller the ladder the sadder the fall.”

    Me 2010

    Keep up the good work

    Rick

  • http://www.constantcinema.com Chris Durham

    Here is the really troubling statement in this:

    “…it is a cell of activists that is releasing information designed to embarrass people in power.”

    It seems that Mr. Carr is implying that the information is somehow orchestrated. It is information. Information is neutral. I won’t claim that there’s no agenda behind the dissemination of this information, but the insinuation that the information is in some way imbued with that agenda is fairly absurd.

  • Andy Freeman

    > It is information. Information is neutral.

    Information is produced by folks who are not neutral. (Even accurate wind speed is not neutral. It comes from a point of view that wind speed is somehow interesting.)

    > It seems that Mr. Carr is implying that the information is somehow orchestrated.

    Of course it is. All information is orchestrated. It is produced with the intent of affecting something.

  • http://www.singlethrow.com Internet Marketing Consultants

    >>>In Western democracies, we may well work under the belief that the state is legitimate, but we surely don’t operate under the view that everything it does is legitimate. That is our job — isn’t it? — to find and expose its illegitimate acts. <<<

    Everything is out in the open – and we expect it to be that way – however the viability of that information is still in question. While I don't agree that WikiLeaks is "right", I do believe it was inevitable. I don't want the secrets that protect us as a country to be out there for the world to see – and just the mere fact that they are out there means the government, and the people working within it, need to update their policies of information protection accordingly if they expect secrets to remain as such.

  • http://oswpca.com joel anderson

    “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything.
    Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and
    having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.”
    -Oscar Wilde

    The administration, of the Town of Old Saybrook CT, said it will submit to a town meeting for a vote of the electors, the proposition to share costs with a subset of the population, for a project that was approved by *all* the Town’s electors in the town-wide referendum of 11Aug2009.

    This ill-disguised scheme is designed to buy votes (using other people’s money) for the administration among voters (who are the majority), by relieving them of the burden of paying for that for which they just voted.

    Local print media will not cover this story.

  • Ramon

    I do not take it to be so.

  • http://wiity.blogspot.com/ Reverse Phone Lookup Search

    Everything is and should be public.We have the right to know everything.

  • Andy Freeman

    > “Mainstream media may spend a lot of time trying to ferret information out of official hands, but they largely operate in the belief that the state is legitimate and entitled to at least some of its secrets.”

    Did “mainstream media” hold that “the state is legitimate” belief when W was president?

  • roger rainey

    George Bush was illegitimate? Was it legitimate to use the power of the US presidency to strongarm Chrysler creditors who had a valid legal claim so as to preserve value for unions? Was it legitimate to force an entire industry into constricting regulation through heretofore never used parliamentary maneuvers, while the public screamed in objection? Was it legitimate to be the first presidency to push for, and accept, an international treaty from a lame duck senate? Jeff, you’d be interesting if you weren’t so blinkered.

  • http://samsonblinded.org/news/ Conny@Israel

    I think you’ll never get a unanimous answer to this issue. But personally I think that the government is a more powerful force than the one presented by journalists. So, if the goernment decide they have right to have some secrets they will anyway. And it’s true for any country – whether it’s the USSR or the US.

  • Lori Anders

    Pardon the typos in my previous comment. Here’s the correction:

    Digital journalism and traditional journalism seem to agree that, in the U.S., government should be considered legitimate, but the digital realm is better suited to affect and change the policies of governments and the norms of society. As an example of digital journalism’s clout, consider what some are saying on the radio. This may be the top story of 2010-2011.

    Heard on radio today:

    “…instead of continuing to be an unfocused variety of scattered energies, the young have found a way to harness their power into a sharp unified force that, in 2011, can lead the world into the first global economic surge powered by drastic global educational reform. The young went global with Rocky Pop(Rockefeller Aldrich Kennedy-Popton)’s site on October 15th, 2010, and they’re going to go ultraviral with it on New Year’s Day…”

    Find out more at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2010/10/prweb4646214.htm

    • Andy Freeman

      From the cited article.

      > The preeminent next-generation political leader, Rockefeller Aldrich-Kennedy Popton

      Wasn’t Thurston Howell IX available?

      > Like Clockwork, This Next-Generation Political Leader Picks the 15th of October 2010 to Announce That an Explosive Change Can Be Introduced to the World by School Newspapers Because Student Journalism is the Last Bastion of Unmanipulated Mass Media

      That would be funny if it was satire instead of being earnest.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children's_Crusade

    • Andy Freeman

      “Rocky Pop”s grand contribution is at

      http://theperfectmomentneverends.com/ .

      There’s a nice image of some lollypops at the top.

      Almost all student and children’s movements are actually astroturf and the vast majority fall into two categories – mostly harmless and huge disasters. Fortunately, most of the latter fizzle, which is my prediction for young Pop’s endeavor.

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