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.