14 Dec 2010

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Open Secrets: MCDM’s Public Dialogue about WikiLeaks

Three days after Julian Assange released the most recent WikiLeaks documents, and 36 hours after deciding to publicly address the subject, the MCDM program put together the provocative event, “Open Secrets: An Open Conversation about WikiLeaks and Information Transparency in America,” drawing an excited crowd of roughly 130 people to the Microsoft Auditorium at the Seattle Public Library downtown on Friday evening, December 10. In addition to the crowd, the MCDM orchestrated a Livestream (watch video) of the event which by now has drawn 286 unique views and at the time had a peak of 80 participants. All discussion was bolstered by a vigorous Twitter feed (#opensecrets).

Three guest speakers with a vast and varied knowledge of media and communications served as the fulcrum for a robust conversation about WikiLeaks and WikiLeaks’ affect on communications, the founder Julian Assange, and transparency in media. Mike Fancher, Retired Executive Editor at The Seattle Times, Brett Horvath, Director of The Leaders Network, and Sarah van Gelder, Editor-In-Chief of Yes! Magazine acted as panelists and thought provocateurs in the discussion, though by no means did the event follow the typical panel model. Instead, MCDM Director Hanson Hosein and Associate Directors Scott Macklin and Anita Verna-Crofts circled the audience with microphones and read out questions from the Livestream and Twitter, allowing everyone in the auditorium and at home to question and comment.

WikiLeaks is nonprofit media organization founded by Australian Julian Assange that publishes confidential documents provided by anonymous sources from around the world. Though WikiLeaks has been operating since 2007, the most recent publication, featuring confidential diplomatic cables going back to 1966, has led to a worldwide polarization of opinions.

The sensitive nature of the documents prompted Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) to call on major payment avenues such as PayPal and Visa to prohibit donations to the organization, and led Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to call Assange a “terrorist.” Since the documents were exposed, other companies, like MasterCard and Amazon, have restricted their customers from donating to the nonprofit. In the auditorium on Friday night, members of the audience palpably seethed about this perceived coerced infringement on Internet freedom

The evolving conversation on Friday night focused on the ramifications and implications of the WikiLeaks documents on journalism, government, and privacy issues.  The discussion about the importance of WikiLeaks as a platform quickly gave way to the importance of WikiLeaks’ content. Horvath, an outspoken advocate for what he called “radical transparency,” and van Gelder, an advocate for “scientific journalism,” see WikiLeaks as proof that the big sources of power and institutions are not effectively addressing or solving the world’s greatest problems. Van Gelder conveyed WikiLeaks as “lifting the veil,” referring to both secrecy in government and the failure of mass media to report on controversial subjects.

In a similar vein, Fancher sees WikiLeaks as the dissolution of the proverbial “gate” separating the common person from the journalist, and wonders what distinguishes journalism from all other content now that everyone can be a publisher. Fancher went so far as to say the WikiLeaks—and organizations like it—are changing the way reporting happens. When in the past reporters spent the bulk of time researching and vetting a story, now the journalist must report immediately and be willing to open their document to a rapidly informed community for revision—an open journalism.

A common thread throughout the night was the idea that WikiLeaks has profoundly changed the methodology of public policy and journalism, and that governments and laws must catch up to this new framework.  Whether this is a positive or negative change remains to be seen, and Hosein echoed the thoughts of many when he said, “we probably won’t know how important this was until four or five years from now.” He also candidly asked how many of the audience present truly believed in the benefits of WikiLeaks, shifting the tone of the conversation. A certain brave minority of audience members voiced their opposition to the WikiLeaks, prompting a discussion of exactly how transparent governments need to be to still function. The audience started wondering out loud: Who is this Julian Assange? Have all the documents been verified? Why is our immediate reaction to question our government, versus questioning this organization?

WikiLeaks is currently warning the world that the next batch of documents will be particularly controversial. Whether it’s diplomatic gossip, game-changing military operations, or shocking inside meetings between enemy nations, WikiLeaks has provided us the next chapter of media communication. As an MCDM student, I can only hope that the ensuing dialogue about WikiLeaks in America is as open, unbiased, and thought-provoking as Friday night’s discussion. The MCDM offered the public an agenda-free platform to discuss and understand a divisive issue, and facilitated a passionate and fruitful conversation. Undoubtedly we will find that in time, there will be just as much to learn from the concept of WikiLeaks as the contents.

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Open Secrets: MCDM’s Public Dialogue about WikiLeaks