Why the Mainstream Media Loves Wikileaks' Hacker Journalism

Last Updated Apr 19, 2010 1:45 PM EDT

In the bestselling novel, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a romance develops between a reporter and a hacker. One has access to secret information, the other to the public discourse. A similar love affair has developed between the mainstream media and the hacker journalism of Wikileaks, which goes places the traditional press can't -- or won't -- to get a scoop.

First, let me clarify what I mean by hacker journalism. Wikileaks, formally known as the Sunshine Press, is a non-profit founded by "human rights activists, journalists and technologists" (emphasis mine). Their stated goal is to expose corruption and crime at the highest levels of government and industry. Unlike the heroine of the Swedish crime novel, however, the group isn't actively breaking into systems and stealing top secret data. They don't have to. Rather, Wikileaks acts as a middleman between hackers and the mainstream media.

Let's take some of the group's biggest scoops as examples. Climategate was based on a number of emails stolen from the private accounts of top scientists and academics. The group later published hacked emails from Sarah Palin's AOL account. They published transcripts of pager data illegally intercepted on 9/11. Most recently the group obtained and decrypted a top secret Army video that Reuters had been trying, unsuccessfully, to obtain for over two years. "This isn't NSA level decryption, but what is it?" wrote cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier.

The relationship between Wikileaks and the mainstream press is codependent, to say the least. At a time when many large news organizations are being forced to cut costs by shrinking their investigative departments, Wikileaks is providing the service free of charge. The group also provides legal cover, by standing in between the traditional journalists and the questionable tactics used to obtain this information.

In return the mainstream media transforms Wikileaks raw data into full blown media events, with hundreds of articles and interviews expanding the coverage on big scoops like Climate Gate and the helicopter attack. And the love doesn't stop there. Blue chips publishers like Gannet (GCI), Scripps (SSP) and Hearst have all pledged legal support to the group (scroll to bottom of link for full list).

The mainstream organizations do stop short of supporting Wikileaks directly with financial aid, and with good reason. Like any good hacker collective, Wikileaks' corporate identity is a diffuse international entity with servers based in Sweden, Belgium and the U.S. This protects it from the kind of legal gag orders that might be applied at the national level, and allows its sources to ply their trade in the mostly non-existent legal structure of international cyberlaw.

Not that authorities haven't been trying. In the U.S., Wikileaks has been investigated by Congress and compared to spies, insurgents and terrorists by the Defense Department. The site was briefly shut down by a federal judge in California, but quickly reappeared on mirror sites set up around the globe. "We live in an age when people can do some good things and people can do some terrible things," said Judge Jeffrey White, "without accountability necessarily in the court of law."

Wikileaks is pushing the envelope for acceptable information gathering, and the traditional press is reaping the rewards. But this arrangement is threatened by Wikileaks' lack of a real sugar daddy, which forced the group to shutter it's main website this January. In response, mainstream-media organizations are calling on readers for financial support. "If you want to read the exposes of the future, it's time to chip in," wrote the British newspaper The Guardian.

Wikileaks appreciates the support, but wouldn't mind a little company as well. "That's arguably what spy agencies do, hi-tech investigative journalism," said Australian Julian Assange, a founder and public face of the group. "It's time the media upgraded its capabilities along those lines."

Image courtesy of Wikileaks Bonus Interview with Julian Assange on the Colbert Report

  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.