Web 2.0 has witnessed the rise of citizen journalism and a brand of publishing that reminds me of the wild, wild West, compared to the staid publications of the East Coast with their European sensibilities and, as Norman Mailer put it, their "bloodless, gutless restraint. "
Cyberspace tends to be collective, combative and ideological. And Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, is one of the most combative and ideological publishers on the web. Assange and the leaked documents and videos he has published are now at the red hot center of the battle to control the flow of information over the world wide web. Although Assange is not the first publisher to make government documents available to the public, his publication of gun camera videos and U.S. Department of State cables is massive, both in terms of its sheer volume and in terms of its buzz. And it is the only leak around right now. In my view, there is nothing on WikiLeaks as sensational as the Abu Ghraib photos, and, in fact, nothing as shocking as some of the videos that have been up on YouTube since the start of the Iraq occupation, but Assange has made the leaks personal, part of a private war with the U.S. government. He has given the publication of leaks a human face. He has become the center of attention. That's too bad. Because it may be too hot at the center for Assange.
When I first saw the gun camera video Assange published, I was struck by the fact that the gunship was adhering to General Petraeus' regrettable rules of engagement for Baghdad. The rules should have been stricter, but at least they prevented the gunships from finishing off the wounded the way this gunship did.
This kind of video, depicting the actual murder of a wounded insurgent, has been available on YouTube for years, along with countless home videos put up there -- self-published, if you will -- by American soldiers and Marines, and also by insurgents. Most of the insurgent videos seem to have been removed quietly over the years on the grounds that they violate YouTube's terms of service. I say "quietly" because YouTube, a publisher whose significance dwarfs the personal soap opera of Assange and WikiLeaks, has never identified itself as a publisher with an ax to grind. In fact, YouTube doesn't pretend to be a publisher at all. Putatively, they are simply providing a forum for the free exchange of information. Therein, it seems to me, lies YouTube's safety, if not legally -- and I don't pretend to understand the legal issues around the free flow of information -- at least morally. For YouTube does not notice us -- unless we draw attention to one another. They have adopted at least the appearance of ignorance and neutrality. Assange has not.
Assange has, in fact, made quite a big deal out of knowing exactly what he's publishing. He has probably been led down that path by the establishment press who are very high on "responsibility" and insist on things like verifying sources, redacting classified information, and making a determination about whether the public's right to know outweighs the danger of exposing operators and operations. Having consented to work with the establishment in making those judgments, Assange has exposed himself to the moral, if not the legal, responsibility to get it right.
I suspect that is something Julian Assange is poorly equipped to do.