When Bradley Manning’s defence attorneys wanted someone to explain journalism (pdf) to the court (pdf) trying him, they did not call on a journalist, they called on a legal scholar and expert in networks: Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and author of The Wealth of Networks.
For as Benkler explained to the court, journalism is now a network — a “network ‘fourth estate’”. In this network, there are many roles that can be linked together: witnessing, gathering, selecting, authenticating, explaining, distributing. Each can be an act of journalism. Each can be done by someone else, not necessarily working in a single institution. “Journalism,” said Benkler, “is made up of many things.”
Those actors can now include not just the reporters and editors in newspapers, and not just bloggers working alone, but also other, new players: witnesses who share what they see on the streets of Cairo, Rio, or Istanbul; witnesses or whistleblowers who share what they discover in their work (see: Manning or Edward Snowden) and organisations that aid one function or another (see: WikiLeaks). As Benkler went on to testify Wednesday: One of the things that’s happened is people realise that you can’t have all the smartest people and all the resources working in the same organisation. So we have seen a much greater distribution in networks that even though they use the internet, what’s important about the network structure is actually permissions, who’s allowed to work on what resource or assignments of work assignments.
Permission is precisely what is at stake in Manning’s trial and will be if Snowden is brought to court: both men had permission to see what they saw. They did not have permission to share it. Or if they are deemed whistleblowers, do they? Well, that may depend on whom they shared their information with: a journalistic organization, perhaps. But is WikiLeaks such an organisation? Or is it a source for “the enemy”?
That is an issue Benkler and attorneys wrestled with, as he argued that WikiLeaks was indeed seen as a journalistic organisation — until Manning’s files became public (with the help of the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, el Pais and other clearly journalistic enterprises). From then on, Benkler said, WikiLeaks was demonised by American politicians in their “shrill” campaign against it.
All this matters to Manning’s defence because it informs the question of intent: did he intend to share the videos and files he found with fellow citizens or with the enemy? Was WikiLeaks a journalistic entity with links to the public or an enemy tool with a line to Bin Laden? There lies a line between whistleblower and spy — or so the argument goes. There’s another issue in play: the one around “a journalist”. Who is a journalist? For that matter, what is journalism?
Journalism is not content. It need not be a profession or an industry. It is not the province of a guild. It is not a scarcity to be controlled. It no longer happens just in newsrooms. It is no longer confined to narrative form. So, then, what the hell is journalism?
It is a service whose end is an informed public. For my entrepreneurial journalism students, I provide a broad umbrella of a definition: journalism helps communities organise their knowledge so they can better organise themselves. So, anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism. Anyone can help do that. The true journalist should want anyone to join the task.
In his testimony, Benkler warned the court of the precedents that may set: If the threat to potential whistleblowers and leakers was as great as a death penalty or life in prison, [that would chill] the willingness of people of good conscience but not infinite courage to come forward and … [would] severely undermine the way in which leak-based investigative journalism has worked in the tradition of free press in the US.