'The Fifth Estate' and the ethics of the Fourth Estate

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2013 - 7:00 PM

New film on WikiLeaks raises key questions about the modern media environment.

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Dan Stevens as Ian Katz and Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate.”

Photo: Frank Connor • Dreamworks Pictures/Associated Press,

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“The Fifth Estate,” the new film featuring a first-rate portrayal of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, presents the promise and peril of today’s asymmetric media era.

The questions raised are ones that Bill Keller, then executive editor of the New York Times, directly dealt with. Along with the Guardian in London and Der Spiegel in Germany, the Times partnered to parse and publish WikiLeaks’ cache of classified documents.

Keller, now a columnist, wrote in 2011 about a process that “combined the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of handling a vast secret archive with the more mundane feat of sorting, searching and understanding a mountain of data.” Impressively, “The Fifth Estate” captures the cloak-and-dagger, but does not make a molehill out of the data mountain and the ethical questions of how to responsibly reveal the leak-turned-torrent of classified cables.

“WikiLeaks initially found some of the measures taken by the Times (and the Guardian and other partners) — redacting the names of innocent sources who might be put at risk, offering the government an opportunity to make a case for withholding some information — puzzling,” Keller recalled in an e-mail exchange. “Their agenda was to discredit the U.S. and its allies, and the basic journalistic practice of letting the subjects of the memo respond was alien to them. After an initial release by WikiLeaks of documents that included names of informants, they took some flak from groups I think they regarded as like-minded, such as Amnesty International, and after that they seemed to take redaction more seriously.”

Reacting to redacting wasn’t just a journalism issue. For the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, it literally could mean life and death for sources willing to help Americans.

At stake for State was “a breach of trust,” said Tom Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who is now a diplomat in residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “People, when they talk with our diplomats, expect a high level of classification and protection so it won’t become public.”

“The Fifth Estate” hones in how stolen secrets — downloaded on a CD with Lady Gaga written on it — become a Pandora’s box that Assange seems unwilling to contain.

Journalists, conversely, were well-aware of how an ethical publishing process could still bring truth to power. James C. Goodale, who was chief counsel for the Times during the Pentagon Papers case, was in Minneapolis this week for a lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. Goodale, author of “Fighting for the Press,” said in an interview that, “From the public point of view, you would like to have responsible publishers working with Assange all the time to try to persuade him to hold back what they hold back.”

Hanson, analyzing media and diplomacy, agreed. “It would have been a data dump, and so I suppose in a way the journalists may have sanitized it a bit. But they also created a format where it was more quickly available to the general readership. Very few people have looked at these documents apart from the media reporting on them. But that’s not true for foreign governments, however.”

That scrutiny is what makes unredacted data so dangerous. And yet, Goodale believes Assange is owed some protection. “He [Assange] clearly has the same protections as the publishers,” Goodale said. “And I would submit he has the same protection, whatever that is these days, as journalists, because he went out and got the story.”

As for whom he got the story from — former Pfc. Bradley Manning (now known as Chelsea Manning) — Goodale equates the source with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and even Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

Keller concurred that WikiLeaks has First Amendment rights. “What they do is not my kind of journalism, or the Guardian’s kind of journalism. They are not particularly interested in being fair. But there are lots of journalism practitioners I wouldn’t emulate, but would defend as entitled to press freedom.”

What’s next is anyone’s (and everyone’s) guess. Keller calls Manning and Snowden “exceptional cases,” but he doesn’t foresee a free-for-all. “The government’s aggressive posture toward leakers, and the tracking technology that makes it easier to catch leakers, work as pretty strong disincentives.”

Goodale, however, believes there will be similar cases “because there is no way to have information penned up anymore,” and Hanson added that “the new media is changing all aspects of our lives these days. … It’s not just diplomacy, it’s all across the board.”

To many, “The Fifth Estate” is about one person. And Assange’s contradictions are striking: In real life, the avatar of openness is closed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, avoiding extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual misconduct. In the film he’s portrayed as Pied Piper and rat all in one.

The personalization of our impersonal Internet era isn’t lost on Keller.

“As characters, they are pretty irresistible,” Keller wrote this week. “The personalization of the story galvanizes public interest, polarizes public opinion, and probably distracts somewhat from the substance of the disclosures. But Assange and Manning and Snowden are part of the story.”

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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