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Editor's Weekly: Did WikiLeaks go too far?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2010 - As journalists, our job is to disclose information to the public. So why do I feel so squeamish about the WikiLeaks disclosure of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables?

No question, the information is interesting. The catty tone of some private communication is, if nothing else, entertaining. More substantively, the private communication from foreign governments -- including China and those in the Middle East -- shows the discrepancy between their public postures and their real beliefs.

No question, information leaked illegally can contribute to the public good. The Pentagon Papers, by documenting the gap between what the U.S. government was saying and doing in Vietnam, helped lay the groundwork for a change in public opinion and government policy.

No question, it's difficult for journalists to foresee what consequences will result from information we report or withhold. Almost always, the public is better served if we report what we know and let the chips fall where they may than if we self-censor the flow of news in an attempt to protect certain interests or prevent harm.

And yet, the WikiLeaks disclosures still make me squeamish.

Yes, public reporting of government business is good. But the public also benefits when some government business is conducted in private. If the WikiLeaks disclosures cut off candid conversation within the State Department and among governments, that will complicate the task of finding solutions to the world's problems.

Yes, disclosure of classified documents can be good. But WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange offers a less-than-heroic example to rally around. Profiles portray the man as an egotistical anarchist. He's on the run because of his information disclosures and also because of rape allegations. His passion for revealing secrets seems untempered by concern about what harm might result.

The New York Times took a more deliberate approach to the documents, redacting information that might harm individuals and generally focusing on stories with public policy implications. But Times editor Bill Keller was vague in articulating its standards for deciding what to publish. The line is fuzzy, he told NPR.

In his note to readers, Keller concluded: "As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name."

Yes, we journalists should generally publish what we know and let the chips fall where they may. But all or nothing is not the only choice, as the Times itself demonstrated. News organizations have many options about when, how much and what kind of information to make public -– many possibilities for minimizing harm while maximizing public knowledge.

By making those choices responsibly, news organizations strengthen the case for freedom of the press. In contrast, WikiLeaks' presumption that all disclosures are good sets the stage for more government interference in the flow of information.

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