WikiLeaks, Shirley Sherrod and the arrival of the parallel media

First came the tale of Shirley Sherrod, a black U.S. Agriculture Department official in Georgia. She flared into national prominence after a right-wing blogger posted and pushed a cruelly edited videotape of a talk she gave to a civil rights group. In it she seemed to admit to withholding aid from a desperate white farmer because of his race. Sherrod was vilified, fired and, when the video was exposed as essentially fraudulent, vindicated.

Then the WikiLeaks business. WikiLeaks.org, a virtual informational sanctuary for whistleblowers, sluiced tens of thousands of secret U.S. memos and field reports leaked from the Afghanistan war to three top news organizations in the United States and Europe. The three spent weeks on them, and published accounts of incompetence, doubt, brutality and treachery that made headlines worldwide.

Their politics and consequences were dramatically different, but the two affairs have enough in common to warrant seeing them as a single takeaway moment in contemporary media history.

In both cases—the civil servant unjustly lifted from obscurity to serve as a partisan punching bag, and the deluge of secrets shaking certainties about a war that has evaded domestic political challenge—the news agenda was shaped by new media players who were playing by rules of their own.

I think this is a bigger deal that it might seem. The tendency, which I think is wrong, has been to see these cases as reaffirming the power of traditional media. After all, the argument goes, blogger Andrew Breitbart—who launched the Sherrod smear as evidence of that Obama-era “Get Whitie” racism that conservatives claim to perceive—was heeded only because cable news leader Fox News, the mainstream media’s town crier of the Right, was going to lead its evening newscasts with his video.

Likewise, it’s noted that WikiLeaks didn’t simply post its encyclopedic war documents on its own site, but handed them to three established publications—The Guardian of London, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel—and gave them a month to confirm, authenticate and evaluate.

Hence, established media appeared indispensable to ratifying the news from elsewhere, which is why many journalists have dismissed what’s truly novel about all this and instead speak of Breitbart and WikiLeaks simply as “sources.”

I think that badly understates the reality, which goes way beyond the rise of a cool new resource for mainstream reporters. What we have is the emergence of fully-formed, integrated, alternative information systems—the parallel media.

WikiLeaks is a vast, largely clandestine, global information conspiracy, which sees its job as exposing official wrongdoing and has in its four years of existence irritated authorities from China to Kenya and from Russia to Switzerland. It is no mere tip sheet that aspires to tee up stories for established news organizations. Neither is Andrew Breitbart’s blog.

Each of them constitutes a news network unto itself. Each has informants and audiences, each nourishes and in turn feeds off other media, and each directs its energies toward illuminating the public about realities it believes people should know about.

Unlike in geometry, these parallel worlds do converge from time and time. Just as mainstream media look for fresh and original content coming from blogs and websites, so online players angle for mainstream pickup as a powerful way to establish their brands and reach more people.

But that doesn’t mean the parallel media aren’t creating an independent journalistic reality of their own, capable of triggering events and moving opinion with or without the collaboration of the mainstream press.

Regrettably, recent events, when stories born in the parallel media achieved mainstream prominence, are powerful reminders not just of the alternative world’s powers, but of its limitations. Especially its painfully underdeveloped professionalism.

The Sherrod video was a disaster. It was a vicious hoax, and assuming he wasn’t in on it the kindest thing you can say about Breitbart is that he fell for it. He checked out nothing and confirmed nothing. No principled journalist would act so recklessly. He should be cleaning out his desk now.

As for WikiLeaks, its grasp exceeded its reach. It held sensational material it lacked the capacity to handle responsibly. To their credit, its leaders recognized that, and submitted to the editorial judgment of the derided old mainstream press when it came to assessing such fundamentals as authenticity, significance and potential harm.

But if you can’t stand the heat you’re not supposed to call the caterers. And the decision to simply post much of the raw material simultaneously was editorially incoherent.

The future of the parallel media depends on their incorporating into their own operations such values as prudence and care, which aren’t some archaic holdovers from a discredited regime, but are at the core of responsible journalism.

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