Wikileaks: Secrecy, Technology and the Right to Know

“It’s always a daunting time at a newspaper when you decide to publish something the government says you shouldn’t publish,” says Scott Shane, lead national security reporter for the New York Times. “One of the really interesting, unknown facts is that all of the fallout about WikiLeaks was from about 2% of the documents in the database.”

Shane appeared at an event hosted by the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte entitled “The WikiLeaks Story: Secrecy, Technology and the Right to Know” on Thursday, February 17, 2011. Dana Auditorium, a 1,000-seat venue on the Queens campus, welcomed students, professors, and community members alike for a discussion with Shane moderated by Van King, dean of the Knight School, and Nancy Clare Morgan, instructor of communication in the Knight School and an attorney specializing in media law.

“The dangers of publishing these documents without careful reading and redaction are real,” says Shane, noting issues related to journalistic use and publication of classified documents. According to Shane, the Times worked to redact the documents with the State Department and the White House, which were not surprised by the cables revealing classified information. “Here I am, sending the government classified documents that they already had,” he quipped.

The media serve as a watchdog for governments, but some media scholars say that those days are over, says Morgan. Shane replied: “Sometimes the watchdog falls asleep. The government’s job is to keep this stuff secret, but the journalist’s job is to seek out the secrets in a contest of interests.”

On the issue of the general public’s right to know, Shane says, “By definition, the public has the right to run the show. To do that they need information.”

The questions posed by audience members and students are chronicled in the comments section below, along with brief summaries of Shane’s answers.


  1. One of the early questions of the night, posed by Professor Nancy Clare Morgan on behalf of her students in Media Law:

    Shane admits, “There’s not a lot of time for reflection in the newsroom.” He adds, the industry, its editors, and the public hold honesty and integrity in high regard.

  2. Second question:

    Answer: Julian Assange is living on a friend’s 600-acre estate outside London and has a $1.7 million book deal. Bradley Manning is awaiting a possible 52-year jail sentence. Is he the Daniel Ellsberg of this case? When Shane talked to Ellsberg last week, Ellsberg indicated the answer may be yes.

  3. Third question:

    Answer: WikiLeaks has provided documents to traditional media, but WikiLeaks wasn’t a stable organization with protections for information. We still haven’t come up with a reliable way to send unredacted documents to foreign agencies.

  4. Fourth question:

    Answer: Shane noted that Twitter makes him nervous as a participant – he might become too sarcastic or sardonic. As an object of study, he says he’s much more comfortable being behind the story than being its topic.

  5. Fifth question:

    Answer: Julian Assange certainly has a lot of the same issues as top athletes and pop stars. He could be prosecuted under the espionage act, but that would be a very dangerous precedent for First Amendment law. Shane believes it is hard to draw a line between what Assange does and what American journalists do.

  6. Final Question:

    Answer: The journalist’s obligation is to the people. A better way to phrase it might be that the journalist has a role to play as a watchdog of the government in favor of the interests of the people.

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