Several reports on the web security and privacy of the Wall Street Journal‘s new site, SafeHouse, which is inspired by WikiLeaks, have been published. Reactions centered around the “terms and conditions” on the website, which include a disclaimer that SafeHouse “cannot ensure complete anonymity.” It also states the leak portal “reserve[s] the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process.”
Web security and privacy experts will continue to scrutinize this new venture. Those like Jacob Appelbaum, a security researcher and senior developer on the Tor online anonymity network, will continue to let others know the Journal is being negligent and that this is not a project to be beta-tested on an open Internet. In addition to the security questions, there is the larger question of the Journal’s role in the press and why anyone would ever consider leaking to a newspaper like the Journal.
For establishing a basic understanding of this news organization, this is how SourceWatch, run by the Center for Media and Democracy, characterizes the publication: “The Wall Street Journal, an influential international daily newspaper published in New York City, is owned by News Corporation, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. It does an abysmal job of informing its readers about climate change.”
External links on their page on the Journal lead to an article by David Carr that highlights the newspaper’s rightward turn under Murdoch. It covers two men, Robert Thomson, a top editor, and Gerard Baker, now the newspaper’s deputy managing editor. The article notes the two have adopted “a more conservative tone” and the paper has been “editing and headlining articles to reflect a chronic skepticism of the current [Obama] administration” with the support of the newspaper’s readers.
The issue of the newspaper being right wing is not all that bad if one considers working to maintain objectivity to be a foolish and often dangerous game for professional journalists to continue to play. But, there is the potential that leakers’ information submitted to the Journal would just be used to score points against the other side and against the vast “liberal media,” which the paper’s staff likely finds itself to be in a never-ending struggle against. (Recall, Karl Rove recently launched “Wikicountability,” a site that aims to collect government “dirt” that can be used against the Obama Administration to advance the agenda of Rove’s Crossroads GPS.)
A post by the Columbia Journalism Review indicates the Journal may not be all that interested in real journalism after the “greased exit” of Marcus Brauchli. The story covered how the “exit” indicated a new direction for the newspaper, a likely retreat from a focus on business and sophisticated in-depth reporting. It highlighted how the new owners wanted “newsier stories and more general news,” “shorter and more alluring” stories with a “heavy emphasis on scoops.” CJR suggested the newspaper was adopting an “Anglo-Australian newspaper model–straight, wire-service-type business news coupled with extensive and often smart analysis inside.”
No media organization in the past year has had more scoops than WikiLeaks. If the Journal indeed doesn’t have the manpower for investigative reporting, would it be looking to cut corners and just mine troves of information it hopes “sources” will feed this new portal? And would they hastily and shoddily go through all the material in the way the New York Times, meaning months down the road domestic or international events happen that could have been influenced if they had properly researched the information?
Forget whether it would seek to genuinely check power or not, does the Journal have the capacity to do the investigative reporting necessary to properly cover fraud, abuse, pollution, insider trading and other harms? And would this be anything more than an intelligence operation for Big Business in America?
With the creation of this new “leaks portal,” it appears the Wall Street Journal, like other traditional media, is setting this up because it believes it needs a digital platform for accepting news tips from sources instead of having sources go through a traditional system that may mostly exist offline. As the managing editor of WSJ.com, Kevin Delaney, quoted by Michael Calderone on Huffington Post, acknowledges, “We all agree that WikiLeaks has had a huge impact on the journalism landscape over the last year or so.” And adds, “There’s been a discussion among editors that it made sense to create a system to receive information from sources digitally.”
The Journal like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which are both considering setting up their own WikiLeaks-imitation sites, is seeking to solidify its role as a gatekeeper. It is hoping to get out ahead and ensure that WikiLeaks and new media does not make it wholly irrelevant and, in effect, impact profits. This, just like the decision to set up a paywall, is about surviving the current transformation that is rocking the world of journalism in the United States.
Greg Mitchell, who has been blogging WikiLeaks for The Nation for one hundred and sixty days, said at a panel on WikiLeaks at the 2011 National Conference for Media Reform in Boston, “The traditional role of the press in America and elsewhere in the world has been to want to be the gatekeepers. They release the information. They decide what to cover. They decide how to cover it. And, in relation to leaks, very importantly, for every leak that made big news, there are dozens or hundreds or however many that went nowhere.”
What about the possibility that someone risks his or her life or livelihood by releasing information to the Journal and the Journal does nothing with the information but the newspaper decides to act on the information it received and forward it to law enforcement?
Julian Assange said this of direct-to-newspaper leak sites weeks ago:
[Newspaper] organizations could create such a site if they cared about it. But it’s our experience that at least the Guardian and New York Times don’t care so much to protect sources. In fact, for Cablegate the Guardian and the New York Times communicated over phones. They swapped cables over email. The New York Times approached the White House with its list of stories it was going to publish on the cables one week before publication, and campaigned against the alleged source of the cables, Bradley Manning. We also cannot be sure that they would even publisht the stories they receive. The New York Times sat on the story about the National Security Agency mass-tapping Americans for over a year. CBS sat on the story of the torture at Abu Ghraib for months.
Additionally, why leak to the Journal if what is ultimately published on your leak is going to be up behind a paywall and not be as easy to share as stories posted on other news sites? Why blow the whistle and put your self at risk for a story that people will only get to read a teaser for weeks or months down the line if not days after the story is published?