Posts about government

What if there are no secrets?

Is no secret safe?

That’s the moral to the Wikileaks war log story: you never know what might be leaked. Of course, that itself is nothing new: Whenever we reveal information to even one person, we risk it being spread. The ethic of confidentiality (and privacy) rests with the recipient of that information.

So what’s new now? There are more means to get information since it is pooled and digital. There are more means to share information; Daniel Ellsberg had to go through media to spread his Pentagon Papers while Wikileak chose to go through media so they could add value (perspective and attention) but didn’t have to. And there are new means to stay anonymous in the process.

I’m writing a book arguing that we are becoming more public and that’s good — and that institutions (government, companies) have no choice but to live up to our new standards of transparency and openness. But I am also examining when transparency goes too far.

Is the Wikileaks story an example of crossing a line? First, we have to ask where the line should be. I think it has to move so that our default, especially in government, is transparency. Rather than asking what should be made public we should ask why something should be kept private. Imagine if all government information and actions were public except matters of security and personal and private identification. There will be pressure to head there.

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be moved by force.

Now that they’ve made the war log public, it makes us examine the impact.

We need to ask whether the knowledge that anything written down could be made public will cause less to be written — and we lose information in the long run. That is my concern about efforts to make *all* government communication, including person-to-person email, permanent and public. I imagine that people will stop saying important things in email and instead pick up the phone and we lose the record.

We need to ask whether an ethic of transparency can be expected when leakers can be anonymous and their leaks swift.

We need to ask whether the government would have been better off making more public so that the leaker’s selective publication does not solely set the agenda and the government is stuck reacting.

In the war logs, we are learning things we should know. It’s the leakers — Wikileaks and its three media outlets — who are deciding what not to make public (with some consultation, post-leak, from government) and what should be open. So government loses the ability to decide secrets. Now leakers do. Which side do we trust to decide?

The sane response to leaks, I think, is to open up as much as possible. Then there’s nothing to leak except the things that shouldn’t be leaked. If we had the faith that we knew more, there’d be fewer leaks, fewer reasons to.

I don’t think this is an inexorable process of opening everything, of making no secret safe. As much as I advocate transparency, I don’t advocate that. But when you don’t know how many secrets there are, when there are too many secrets, then everything can be a leak — in Afghanistan or in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless government and business take on a credible and complete ethic of transparency, they will hand over the job of transparency to leakers and no secret is safe.

ANOTHER THOUGHT: This story is a step to the end of access journalism. (NO, it won’t end. Whenever people like me declare the death of something, disbelieve and discount it; we’re just saying we’re heading away from something).

But Wikileaks didn’t need, doesn’t want, won’t ever get official, journalistic, beat access. The derailing of a general in Rolling Stone didn’t come from a beat reporter who cared about access anymore. ProPublica’s work isn’t built on access.

When I talk about how little is spent on investigative reporting in America — as a proportion of total editorial spending across all media, it’s minuscule … microscopic — editors remind me that my calculation doesn’t include beats and beats are the heart of reporting. True and not true. It’s true to the extent that we want ongoing coverage and want it performed by people who build up experience if not expertise in the subject. It’s not true to the extent that reporters who depend on access from the subjects won’t ruin the relationship by breaking the subject’s secrets or the access (and the reporter’s supposed value) ends. (This is why reporters aren’t supposed to blog their opinions about their beats, according to fresh orthodoxy: They would lose access.)

In access journalism, leaks come from the subject. In unaffiliated journalism, leaks come in spite of the subject. As more reporting is done through mechanisms like Wikileaks and ProPublica and bloggers and advocates, I think we’ll see more breaking of secrets, which reinforces my point above: the best way to fight leaks is transparency (not black-out paint).

The Pentagon learned that lesson just a bit when it realized that giving more access would mean more control. Thus the embedding program in Iraq and Afghanistan. But news organizations can’t afford to have reporters embedded in the war zone. Coverage was too dependent on relationships. That honeymoon is ended.

The coverage of this war revealed much of what we know from the war logs. Alex Thomson says, though, that the logs validated what we know. They added facts we couldn’t get with access.

As news organizations shrink, we’ll be able to afford less access journalism — fewer beat reporters building relationships with their subjects — and more reporting — and subversion — from people who have a viewpoint and an agenda. The tone and means of journalism changes. It becomes more uncomfortable. But then, isn’t journalism supposed to be uncomfortable?

: MORE: Many notes from Jay Rosen here: “I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem.”

Jay talks about stateless journalism. Dave Winer says the blogosphere is that. I don’t think the issue is that journalism is stateless but instead that journalism is becoming independent of organizations (pace Clay Shirky). Journalism lacks affiliation. Anybody can feed WIkileaks; Wikileaks can feed anybody. The organizational — nevermind state — point of control disappears. Journalism is everywhere and its up to the public to decide what news is.

Though from another perspective, stateless does matter as we’re seeing more of it across many sectors of society. Our enemy in this war is stateless. Businesses are stateless. Journalism now becomes stateless. I believe the tools of publicness — that is, the internet’s — enable us to organize new societies around states.

: MORE: Andrew Potter breaks down the discussion into four questions.

Disliking the public

There are those in the press and government who don’t like or trust the public they serve. It is an unliberal attitude–which can come from Liberals, by the way–for it doesn’t buy the core belief of liberal democracy that the people properly rule. Two classic examples:

Here we have a German government official saying that it is his job to protect consumers from themselves. In other words, they don’t know best; he does. Nevermind what they do — giving up private data on Facebook or giving Google the highest market penetration anywhere — he says they should do something else. And so he’ll use his regulatory power to change their behavior to his expectation.

And here we have a columnist for the Observer (aka Guardian), Will Hutton, who says in a fit of journalistic hubris that the BBC is “the last bulwark against populist government by the mob.” So the BBC is what protects the public from itself. He further says, “The bile, unfairness and lack of restraint in the blogosphere is infecting the mainstream media and thus American politics.” Which is to say that the press and government were unsullied and free of bile and unfairness until these damned bloggers (read: citizens with tongues) came along to corrupt them.

In both cases, we simply see members of a power structure threatened by the emergence of a public with its own mind and voice. We thus see the conflict that arises out of the rise of publicness. That’s one of the topics I’m thinking through as I write my book.

No American BBC

I just don’t understand Columbia University’s apparent obsession with handing over portions of the press to government subsidy, giving up on the free market. I haven’t given up on it. Have you?

The latest raised palm comes from Columbia President Lee Bollinger in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, of all places. This could send BBC-hater Rupert Murdoch to his grave so he can spin there. Bollinger proposes that we start an American BBC by pooling (merging?) the resources of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, PBS, and NPR.

He repeats the old saw that American media is already government subsidized. Except postal subsidies are meaningless as print and the post office decline. Legal ads should be going to the web for free to save taxpayers money anyway. I wish PBS and NPR did not rely on any government money so it would not be put under government pressure and could operate with true independence. And I do think broadcast spectrum should be sold so it is not seen as public airwaves (broadcast itself becoming meaningless) and so it is not subject to government censorship (see today’s victory for the First Amendment).

Bollinger argues that we’re getting the BBC thanks to the British taxpayer. Well, yes, the BBC has funded its world service for years to extend its empire; their choice. But I pay a fee on Sirius to hear them. And its TV channels in the U.S. are ad-supported, as is its web site. As BBC budgets are attacked by the Tories, I’d say it’s more likely our marketing economy will subsidize their free news — if Murdoch doesn’t stop them.

When Columbia presented its plan to save journalism — which included government subsidy — I had this discussion with Bollinger and he pointed out that I am subsidized by government as a professor at a state university. Touché. But I’d rather raise money to support my work from foundations and companies and revenue-generating activities. “Indeed,” Bollinger writes in the Journal, “the most problematic funding issues in academic research come from alliances with the corporate sector.”

Bollinger then questions the editorial integrity of the American press he wants to save, saying: “To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company’s environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment.” Who has mishandled BP more — the press or the government?

Shockingly, he mentions as models of state-supported media, not just the BBC but also China’s CCTV and Xinhua news and Qatar’s Al Jazeera. In what sane world is the Chinese government’s relationship with news a model. What would Google do?

Bollinger suggests taking down the prohibition on beaming propaganda broadcasters VoA and RFE into the U.S. “This system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters,” Bollinger concludes. “The goal would be an American broadcasting system with full journalistic independence that can provide the news we need. Let’s demonstrate great journalism’s essential role in a free and dynamic society.”

I think we can demonstrate and build that independence by teaching tomorrow’s journalists to build strong, sustainable, and independent businesses. We just disagree.

: SEE ALSO: George Brock of the other City University (London) and Roy Greenslade of the Guardian and City as well.

Brock and I agree. The rational Greenslade wants to agree but the emotional Greenslade doesn’t. He, like Brock (and me), respects the talent, value, and experience that is trapped in dying institutions and so he, unlike Brock and me, wants to overcome what seems to be his better sense and agree with Bollinger that we should consider government rescue.

With respect, I think Greenslade’s logical leap illustrates the problem with Bollinger’s thinking: They assume that the business model of journalism is hopeless. I do not. That is what needs discussion.

Quite to the contrary, I believe — based on research, which is one of the values we add from a university — that journalism could well be more sustainable, accessible, and accountable than before because of the efficiency brought by specialization (do what you do best, etc.), free platforms (see John Paton‘s Ben Franklin Project), networks (see Growthspur), collaboration (or Alan Rusbridger would call it mutualization), not to mention the casting off of industrial ways and expenses (in the pressroom as well as in the newsroom).

Greenslade acknowledges that government support would be a regrettable idea and so he can come to it only if he believes — as he says he does — that the web is not sufficient “to act as a competent watchdog.”

Well, all four of us — Bollinger, Brock, Greenslade, and I — teach in universities. If we do not together believe that we can equip the next generation of journalists to build the structure that creates that competent watchdog, then perhaps we should not be teaching journalism, as it would be irresponsible to do so. But I don’t think any of us believes that, for we all teach or support the teaching of journalism. So I say the question we should be investigating with all the rigor and diligence we can muster is how to build that future. Perhaps Bollinger does indeed believe that the only solution is to seek government rescue but I say it is far too soon to resort to what Greenslade acknowledges should not be a first resort. We have a lot of resorts to go through first.

: AND MORE: Reason attacks, as do Mark Tapscott and Claudia Rosett, who says: “If, as Bollinger suggests, the provision of adequate news coverage cannot be entrusted to the market, then what about such vital matters as shelter and medical care?”

I’ll just bet we’ll soon hear from Bollinger or his allies that at least he sparked a discussion. But he sparked the wrong discussion. We shouldn’t be debating which desperate move to take having given up on the sustainable future of journalism. We should be discussing how to build that sustainable future, damnit.

Get off the lawn

There’s one thing that Rupert Murdoch, Arianna Huffington, Steve Brill, and I agreed on yesterday – and and there’s probably nothing else one can imagine this group would ever find consensus around. At the two-day Federal Trade Commission “workshop” (read: hearing) that asked how journalism will “survive” (their word) in the internet age, we all told the commissioner to kindly butt out.

Murdoch talked about a drumbeat building to bail out newspapers and how that would be a mistake, just as bailing out GM was. The government shouldn’t save companies that make things customers don’t want, he argued. Huffington said there’s no need for government intervention and after her speech (read: testimony), I interviewed her for my upcoming Guardian MediaTalkUSA podcast and when I pointed out that she agreed with Rupert, she pointed out that he was asking for government favors in his threats to try to rewrite fair use. Brill started his talk begging government to stay out.

And I told Liebowitz that the future of news will be entrepreneurial not institutional; the institutions had and blew their chance. What we need is a level lawn where the tender shoots of these new businesses can grow without government trampling them on its way to try to protect the legacy players.

But the commissioner’s title for this “workshop” alone – “How will journalism survive the internet age?” – is prejudicial, a foreshadowing of the results they have already prescribed: it implies saving the legacy players when, as the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said at the hearings today, journalism doesn’t need to be saved, it needs to be created. (The reason I’m not there today is that I am teaching my entrepreneurial journalism course. That’s one way to save journalism: build it.) The choice of speakers was itself prejudicial: mostly the old players who played their tiny violins. The questioning was prejudicial: an FTC bureaucrat threw a newspaper exec a soft ball to decry aggregators and suggest how he wanted to get money out of them (not hearing the idea that aggregators who are adding value to the content). Liebowitz’s presumptions about the event were prejudicial; in his opening talk, he said he has already scheduled more hearings to talk about copyright (read: changing copyright to favor the dying institutions).

My requestion to Liebowitz and company: Get off our lawn!

Maybe, just maybe, he heard a bit of this. He told the Wall Street Journal last night, “I think the message from today is be very, very cautious before you do anything.” How about nothing.

But from the looks of Twitter, it’s worse today. Rep. Henry Waxman told the group today that “Congress responds to market failures.” But this is not a market failure. It’s a market, doing what markets do. Let the market do that.

Rep. Waxman: Get off our lawn!

First, do no harm, government

Relevant to today’s FTC workshops (read: hearings) on the “survival” (their word… I would have said “rebirth:) of journalism in the internet age, Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal issue a good set of principles for government involvement (read: meddling or support):

First and foremost, do no harm. A cycle of powerful innovation is under way. To the extent possible, government should avoid retarding the emergence of new models of newsgathering.

Second, the government should help promote innovation, as it did when the Department of Defense funded the research that created the Internet or when NASA funded the creation of satellites that made cable television and direct TV possible.

Third, for commercial media, government-supported mechanisms that are content neutral — such as copyright protections, postal subsidies and taxes — are preferable to those that call upon the government to fund specific news outlets, publications or programs.

I disagree about their conclusion: that government has always supported media (with postal discounts, legal notices, tax breaks) and that should continue. I disagree on principle and as a practical matter. Postal discounts are in force for many – including junk mailers – and in any case they become less relevant when news isn’t printed. Legal notices, I believe, should go online in standard data forms and feeds, making them more available to more people, giving us a permanent record of them, and – critically – saving taxpayers money. There’s no reason for media to have tax breaks (except, as other industries receive them, for innovation).