Ghosts in the WikiLeaks

Each day brings forth new revelations from the WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic cables. As I'm writing this, I can read about tension between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Or about how Al-Jazeera, it turns out, isn't independent from Qatar's government. And everyone is weighing in on whether WikiLeaks is the greatest thing to ever happen to transparent governance, or the worst. Even Umberto Eco. Wikileaks is getting analyzed and reported on from all sides, it seems. And all the juicy discussion hinges on whether the release of this data is ethical or not. And yet I haven't seen much discussion of how various religions might look at Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks.

So I wanted to highlight this essay on, a libertarian site. In it, Ken Kurson argues that Assange is neither a hero nor a villain. And he uses a religious concept to make his case. He says the problem with this particular WikiLeaks dump (and not the ones about Kenyan police killings, Somali assassination attempts, Church of Scientology methods, Climatic Research Unit emails, and so on) is that it shows a critical inability to distinguish between that which can be dumped and that which ought to be:

Observant Jews are familiar with the concept of lashon hara--"evil tongue" or gossip. For centuries rabbis have ruled that malicious gossip--even if it's true--is a serious sin. Many consider it akin to murder, if not in seriousness at least in permanence. When you steal from someone you can be ordered to make your victim whole; but when you murder him or gossip about him you can never really repair the damage. That seems foolishly quaint in the TMZ-Gawker era, where every celebrity booger must be photographed, every perceived hypocrisy exposed on behalf of page views and the greater good.

But a strict observance of the prohibition against lashon hara would make it hard to practice journalism at all. As a journalist for 15 years (not to mention a maker of political ads), I crush up against the concept of lashon hara constantly. Information that serves the public good is often embarrassing to the subject. The test of fairness and print-worthiness should be whether the delicious little tidbit is more than just embarrassing. Revelations such as "American diplomats think Canadians 'carry a chip on their shoulder'" don't clear the bar. And august mainstream media sources like The Washington Post and New York Times, which have been running daily, breathless, above-the-fold stories on the leaks should admit that "Medvedev plays Robin to Putin's Batman" is no different from the "no, she di'int" throwdowns their tabloid competitors love to gin up between celebrity rivals.

The existence of WikiLeaks is a good thing. You can't be in favor of democracy--and you certainly can't be a journalist--if you don't believe that the potential for exposure of wrongdoings helps keep those in positions of power accountable. However, just because something can be published doesn't mean it should be. Privacy is not the same as "secretive" or "clandestine" or "obfuscating." As a society, we benefit from the Internet's unrivaled ability to blast infinite information freely. But that ability does not mean everything ought to be shared. If we have a "right to know" the contents of Hillary Clinton's private communications with her staff, do we have a right to see photos of her showering, to hear tapes of her snoring, to read stolen letters she wrote to her parents?

The mention at the end of the piece of the journalistic lessons to be gleaned from the children's book The Great Brain is also great. I found the essay so compelling that it made me wish for a news story looking at what theologians of various stripes might say about WikiLeaks.

As was the case with the national debate on torture and interrogation methods for enemy combatants, public discussions could benefit from theological insights. Yes, of course it's worthwhile to have intelligence experts, politicians and pundits hashing it out on the Cable TV shows. But if we want to get to a deeper understanding of what our society should encourage and discourage in journalism, religion should be part of that discussion.

What do you think has been the best use of a religion angle in a WikiLeaks story?

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