That journalism, as the “fourth estate” that was to keep power honest, has lost the focus and influence that defined its societal role became clear after 9/11 and in the reporting on the run-up to the Iraq war, as television and print journalists looked less like independent analysts than interest group spokes people.
Classical journalism adhered to the belief that truth kept politics and business healthy. That politics and business would one day manage to subsume their controller and make it into an instrument of their interests has come as a shock. But truth will be out. Only the media form has changed, and Wikileaks, as one example of web reporting, has come as an even greater shock to the interests of power who thought they had gotten the media under control than the public suffered when the truly investigative traditional channels fell by the wayside. Attempts to treat web information flows like breaches of security in the traditional sense misunderstand the phenomenon of a knowledge society, as the caricature in a German paper, the Badische Zeitung, shows (Caption: Plague of Wasps – “Hit Them!”)
The online petition platform Avaaz.org has already gathered more than 600,000 signatures against the attempts at intimidation against legal journalistic activities and in support of freedom of the press. The WikiLeaks affair has given the platform a surge of attention. As with most aspects in life, a swing of the pendulum outside the limits which healthy life can sustain generates compensating feedback to correct the imbalance. Democracy is coming to politics in a new and more effective form than it has ever been able to before. And Avaaz and others like it are just getting their feet wet. Our political institutions and the instincts they have evolved over the last generations do not yet seem to realize that they must serve an entirely new concept of citizenry to remain relevant and useful.
Internet connectivity and social communities would seem to be filling the vacancy in the checks and balances role the old channels created. But to many who should be relieved at a resurgence of transparency, skepticism and even fear characterize the tone of discussion.
Mitch Joel, a wonderfully creative and insightful Canadian new media figure I’ve just discovered at his site TwistImage, reflects in the blog post: 7 lessons that WikiLeaks teaches us:
“The shocking part of WikiLeaks is how everybody else (those who do not understand Internet culture) is reacting to it. They are not used to this type of organization. They are not used to the way it looks. They are not used to the way it feels. It’s awkward and because of that, it feels both strange and threatening. It simply validates that we are not ready for the massive changes that are happening and that will continue to happen.”
In his Podcast, Six Pixels of Separation, #211, in a small sentence on the side in a conversation with some colleagues over breakfast, one of them describes the value in experiencing interesting people thinking out loud, being invited into the dialogue to understand what animates a social network. It is the vitality of decentralized thinking that is undermining power, and both politics and businesses will need to reinvent themselves to deal with massively interconnected and iterative information networks—that think, evaluate and respond in real-time, completely outside the constraints that power has built up. What will real-time democracy look like? Real-time business or social movements?
We are going to find out!