The recent WikiLeaks scandal has raised a number of questions about our government, freedom of speech, and the role of the media. A few weeks ago, the website WikiLeaks.org released a large number of State Department files. To say the least, the revealed files were interesting. Some were insightful, such as claims that most of the Arab world is legitimately concerned about Iran and its nuclear abilities. Others were amusing and also embarrassing, such as calling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “Robin” to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “Batman.”
Clearly, secret State Department memos and files should not be leaked by government employees, unless there is a legitimate necessity to blow the whistle. But so far the WikiLeak documents have shown no such necessity. While the leaks may be interesting and amusing, the real question is whether the media should give much attention to leaks like this.
In our fast-paced, 24/7 news cycle world, the media looks for just about anything to talk about. So it’s not surprising that the media would widely publicize and harp on the content of these leaks. However, these leaks are almost like reading someone’s mind. While we might like to know the juicy details of exactly what other people think, in most cases it’s probably best that certain details remain secret. Similarly, the content of these leaks may be interesting reading material, but there are ramifications for their release.
Much of this information is actually embarrassing for the United States, and it will certainly hinder foreign relations to a certain extent. For instance, calling the French president an “emperor without clothes” can’t exactly help our relations with France. In other cases, certain countries might not be as willing to cooperate with us if they know that in the future secret communications may be revealed and publicized.
We also face similar issues here at Vanderbilt. The most recent example is the Hustler’s news story that alleged that BYX expelled two of its members as a result of their sexual orientation. The story itself certainly has merit. Indeed, the Office of the Dean of Students is now formally investigating BYX. However, the Hustler crossed the line when it decided to publish BYX’s Code of Conduct (a secret document) in its entirety. Certain parts of the code are definitely relevant to the story. For instance, the section that states that homosexuality will not be condoned falls under this category. These sections can and should be acknowledged and quoted. But publishing the entire document goes too far. For example, the publishing the portion of the code that says BYX brothers are not to use foul language is completely irrelevant to the story. While the exact motives for publishing the entire code are unclear, it seems as though it was done either to gain increased readership out of curiosity, or it was done to punish BYX for not entirely cooperating with the story.
Regardless of the motives, the point is that the media should only publicize relevant and important details from leaked documents. The BYX story, had it just cited the appropriate portions of the conduct code, would have been an excellent example of this. However, the media crosses a line and neglects its job of informing readers when it decides to publish juicy yet irrelevant information just to grab attention. Doing this, as the recent WikiLeaks case shows, could have significant ramifications.
—Phil Carroll is a junior in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org