Breaking up with WikiLeaks

In last Friday’s episode of CBC’s The Current, host Anna Maria Tremonti speaks with the New York Time‘s London Bureau Chief John Burns, who contributed to the paper’s first e-book, Open Secrets: Wikileaks, War and American Diplomacy, published last week, and was point person in NYT‘s relationship with Wikileaks.

The New York Times has now published a book about what happened with that relationship and the lessons its reporters and editors have drawn from the experience,” Tremonti reports.

Interested in how the NYT followed the story behind the story, Tremonti asked Burns What he thinks matters more — the leaked documents, or the nature of the person who provided them?

The NYT think the later plays an important role in any story about WikiLeaks.”People who have changed the world are not often very normal people,” Burns says. But Assange isn’t easy to pin down. After the NYT published a front-page profile about the founder, Assange dropped the paper from its exclusive media partner stable. Now, the NYT is in a “stand-off relationship” with Assange, Burns says. They’re waiting to see how Assange reacts to their new book.

Tremonti asks Burns, “How do you think he’s changed journalism?”

“Not quite as much as he says,” Burns replies. “we’re talking about a change in technologies, but the basic work of journalism remains what it was. I personally feel his claim to be a publisher may be a correct on, but a claim to be a journalist isn’t.

“What’s a journalist’s job? It’s to take raw data, analyze them, put them into context, and make them accessible to readers. that’s the part we’ve always done.” In that way, Assange is simply a source, Burns says.

He notes that Assange believes he’s ushering in a new era in scientific journalism and fact-based journalism, and calls papers like the NYT outdated “stenographers of power”.

“If the purpose was to say that journalism was too often subjective, too rarely objective, many journalists will probably agree,” Burns says, but points out that to suggest a new scientific formula and a brave new world with no secrets and no privacy is a very frightening prospect.

The NYT won’t close their door to future sources, of course.