WikiLeaks: The TMZ of Global Politics

Susan J. Douglas

It is the morning after the third WikiLeaks bomb. In addition to the embarrassing content of the embassy cables leaked on the first day, WikiLeaks and its newspapers of choice–the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegeland El Pais–promise to titrate country-specific leaks over the next days and weeks. Now, as a child of the 60s who rejoiced when the Pentagon Papers saw the light of day in the Times, I tend to think that transparency, especially when it comes to our foreign policy, is an ideal crucial to democracy.

Count me as one progressive who is uneasy about this effort to indiscriminately tear down as many curtains as possible.

Having said that (and writing when we still don’t know all the revelations), there is something odd and pathetic about this latest WikiDump. Odd because what, exactly, was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s motivation here – why these cables (some marked secret, some not), and why have the offloads happened on Obama’s watch? What foreign policy efforts (or deceits) is Assange seeking to reshape? Unlike the Pentagon Papers, whose release had a very clear goal, we just don’t know. Why didn’t the now infamous Downing Street Memo” get a fraction of this coverage? When a story like this allows Sarah Palin to bray that if she were president, she absolutely would have never permitted such leaks, you have to wonder about Assange’s intention and effects.

But here’s the pathetic part: a lot of the exchanges that got the most salivating, breathless coverage would be right at home in a junior high school gossip column; let’s call it the Gawker factor in mainstream journalism. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi parties too much and is Vladimir Putin’s European poodle; French President Nicolas Sarkozy is too sensitive for his own good; Kim Jong-il still likes to drink; Muammar Gaddafi never goes out without a voluptuous blonde” at his side. Journalists have been sucking this stuff up; it’s like TMZ for the chattering classes, or what a Times editorial referred to as sizzle.” Yes, there’s the Obama administration’s embarrassing Let’s Make a Deal” efforts to relocate Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and the Saudis’ eagerness to have Israel take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the immediate right-wing hysteria about the leaks, such as Rep. Peter King’s (R-N.Y.) insistence that WikiLeaks be classified as a terrorist organization, are as preposterous as the likening of Putin to Batman by one State Department employee.

Much more disturbing, and buried on page eight of The Times, is this: The Chinese government, in addition to hacking into Google’s computer systems, has allegedly broken into American government computers and those of Western allies…and American businesses since 2002.” Not as sexy as imagining a Russian leader as a superhero in tights, but, hello America, Congress and the presidency, are you reading this? China’s determination to control the future seems a bit more important than Colonel Gaddafi’s Ukranian nurse.”

So, there are at least two larger issues here now affecting so many of us in quite profound ways. The first is how the tenets of celebrity gossip – who’s thin-skinned, who’s shallow, who parties, who likes blonde babes – are now contaminating the reporting of international news. The second is the loss of anything resembling the backstage that every institution and individual needs. Both show how powerfully celebrity journalism, and its much more aggressive, investigative” stance in recent years, are informing notions of newsworthiness.

Much more so than People or Entertainment Tonight, snarky websites like TMZ or Perez Hilton have dedicated themselves to getting ever deeper into the backstage. Aided by celebrities or their love interests who are too naive to appreciate that new media transmissions are not private, they have turned Tiger Woods’ raunchy texts and Mel Gibson’s violent rants into public entertainment. 

This seems to be the ethos that Assange, and the papers who love him, are embracing, when it comes to covering recent diplomatic efforts that appear, by turns, heroic, clumsy and venal. But despite our legitimate desire for transparency, diplomacy relies crucially on the existence of a backstage, especially when dealing with dispersed and murderous terrorist organizations. So count me as one progressive who is uneasy about this effort to indiscriminately tear down as many curtains as possible, and then to foreground and luxuriate in the most adolescent, gossipy elements of life in the backstage. 

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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