Wikileaks: A Teachable Moment?

A persistent challenge I face when teaching my course “Media, Culture, Society” is talking to students about “bias”. Students are routinely taught that bias is fundamentally a bad thing; it’s associated with illicit behavior, with secret motivations, hidden agendas, an invidious ideology. Its typical counterpoint–and one that is imbued with positive connotation–is “fact”: undisputed, transparent, and accessible. Those of us invested in teaching media as a social and narrative practice know well the problem of disentangling these two concepts from their conventional associations, as we attempt to avoid the traps of relying on convenient labels like “the mainstream media” or its opponent “the alternative media.” The risk with these labels is that we invariably end up characterizing one as fact-based while the other as biased, or even worse, both as biased, and thus dismissible.

The Wikileaks release of “Collateral Murder” in April 2010 and the “Afghan War Diary” in July 2010 stages the debate between “bias” and “fact” in complex ways that can get our students talking about the deeper, implicit, issues that tie fact and bias to questions of ethics, democracy, citizenship, and agency.

Bias

Too often, students turn away from the challenge that the question of news bias poses. But this abdication is less about students refusing the challenge, or about apathy, than about them not knowing how to talk about bias without being, well, biased. The fallback position is to talk about the news in general terms as simply a medium that should report on what happens, objectively, without asserting a prescriptive stance on what should or should not happen. Let the viewer, listener, or reader decide on what is ethically right or wrong.

This rather conventional understanding is captured by Larry Sanger’s (co-founder of Wikipedia) project of Citizendium (CZ), which essentially goes by the slogan: “we, humanity, can do better.” We can do better than Wikipedia, says Sanger, which is “full of serious problems. Many of the articles are written amateurishly. Too often they are mere disconnected grab-bags of factoids, not made coherent by any sort of narrative.” Contributors “‘squat’ on articles and insist on making them reflect their own specific biases. There is no credible mechanism to approve versions of articles.” Too many people, writing anonymously, take advantage of “Wikipedia’s eminently gameable system.”

Resisting bias, it would seem, is wrapped up in our belief that as a community of citizens, we can mutually benefit each other as long as we don’t confuse a description of a controversial topic with our personal opinion about it.

We might well ask of Sanger, or of any of our students, the following:

  • What constitutes amateurism, or, when does one become a professional or expert?
  • What is the threshold between a series of facts and a narrative?
  • Is knowledge-production through authorship rather than through anonymous contribution more mutually beneficial than, say, relying on the Wisdom of Crowds?

Fact

If we should be respectful to not “game” each other with biased accounts, what happens when we lose the trust that our society won’t game us? Certainly, our students face a global economy that rises and falls in a virtual world of imaginary credit that has very real consequences. Transparency, openness, visibility, would seem to lead us out of this nightmarish playground.

The release of “Collateral Murder” and “The Afghan War Diary” is Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange‘s response to an adolescent boy’s global war game in the vein of Kipling’s Great Game, Risk, and Dr. Strangelove. Instead of writing a news report vetted by a professional class of journalists and editors, in the conventional sense that Sanger might recommend, Assange calls for “scientific journalism“: “If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well” (Quoted in Khatchadourian). Information is not authorized by a group of experts, but by the masses–let anyone, Assange seems to say, verify the information in the reports and they’ll see its truth. We, the people, not you group of experts, have humanity’s interest in mind.

With the releases, Wikileaks moves the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the battlefield to the internet, where the weapon of choice is information, and where anonymity (rather than authorship) is at a premium.

Discussion Topics

Compare the 2010 “Collateral Murder” to a 2007 news report on the incident. How does each frame the incident? How do we understand the event when we look at both together, or one in isolation of the other?

Compare how Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Julian Assange think differently about accountability.

  • “Gates said the videos released by the group WikiLeaks were out of context and provided an incomplete picture of the battlefield, comparing it to war as seen ‘through a soda straw.’ ‘These people can put out whatever they want and are never held accountable for it,’ said Gates, speaking to reporters aboard his plane en route to Lima, Peru, for a defense ministers conference this week” (Barnes).
  • Julian Assange in response to accusations that “The Afghan War Diary” put Afghan collaborators with the U.S. in danger. “Because the information is sort of well structured, you can get a computer program to just add it all up. And so, there are around 20,000 [U.S. military responsible civilian causalities]. Accounts of 20,000 deaths are in this material [Afghan War Diary]. And, you know, the Afghan government has complained that last week there was a NATO attack that killed fifty-two. So, it really is quite extraordinary that the press is—that some parts of the press are concentrating on some hypothetical threat to some people (Democracy Now! interview).

References

Barnes, Julian E. “Gates Says Video of U.S. Helicopter Attack in Iraq Out of Context.” Los Angeles Times, April 14 2010.

Bland, Scott. “Julian Assange: The Hacker Who Created Wikileaks.” The Christian Science Monitor, July 26 2010.

“Entering The Secret World Of Wikileaks.” Interview with Philip Shenon on Fresh Air. July 14, 2010.

“Julian Assange Responds to Increasing US Government Attacks on WikiLeaks.” Interview with Julian Assange on Democracy Now!. August 3, 2010.

Khatchadourian, Raffi. “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s Mission for Total Transparency.” New Yorker June 7 (2010).

Kiss, Jemima. “Reuters Staff Killed in Iraq.” The Guardian, July 12 2007.

Uchitelle, Louis. “American Dream is Elusive for New Generation.” New York Times, July 6 2010.

Wikileaks, Collateral Murder.

Wikileaks, Afghan War Diary.

About Nirmal Trivedi

I’m a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech, teaching courses in American Literature, Composition and Rhetoric, Literary Nonfiction, and Thesis Writing. My interests are in American culture during the “long” 19th century, U.S. Empire Studies, visual culture, postcolonial studies, and digital pedagogy. Currently, I’m finishing up work on a book on the figure of the war correspondent in American culture.
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