the cat is out of the bag

Today’s headline at the Times State’s Secrets: Leaked Cables Uncloak U.S. Diplomacy.

A quarter-million confidential diplomatic cables, 251, 287 to be exact, were made public by WikiLeaks, a whistle blowing organization of sorts. The cables detail all the details – the good, the bad and the ugly of “back-room bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats,” the Times reported.

The cat is most definitely out of the bag. But here is what I find interesting. CNN reported today that WikiLeaks stated, via Twitter of course, it is under cyber attack, unable to post the cables.

“The U.S. State Department’s legal adviser said Saturday that if any materials in the posting of documents by the site were provided by government officials without proper authorization, ‘they were provided in violation of U.S. law and without regard for the grave consequences of this action.’”

However, while WikiLeaks may not be able to post directly to its site, it did manage to share all the gory details with five international news organizations, including The New York Times and The Guardian, each of which signed a confidentiality agreement with WikiLeaks. And those news organizations sure have opened that can of worms.

We live in a need-to-know society. We champion the whistleblower. Knowledge is power, right? But how much is too much? Is sharing information at the risk of endangering others worth it?

The Times is often the standard as a source of sound journalism. With the publication of the cables, 11,000 labeled “secret,” 9,000 classified as unfit to share with foreign governments and another 4,000 that fit into both of those categories, the Times may be acting as a watchdog, but at what cost?

The Times stated it has “withheld from articles and removed from documents it is posting online the names of some people who spoke privately to diplomats and might be at risk if they were publicly identified. The Times is also withholding some passages or entire cables whose disclosure could compromise American intelligence efforts.”

My students and I often discuss journalistic ethics, usually in light of the five tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: Seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.

I think this will certainly be on our list of current events for tomorrow. Are media organizations justified in publishing classified information? What is the value of reporting the truth versus minimizing harm to others?

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