Hypnotic illusions at the Wikileaks Show
Greasepaint - check. Factoids - check.
Information isn't knowledge
Part of the problem is the weight given to "information" itself. In the Wikileaks Show, facts are a strange kind of stuff that almost appears to come from another planet; a luminous substance. This is quite similar to how a conspiracy theorist treats information. For a conspiracy theorist, a factoid is emblematic, it's a cypher: it represents and stands-in for a wide set of power relationships. In the real world, these are much more complex and contradictory. By hyping a collection of factoids, the Logs become quite symbolic. They foreclose the analysis we must perform as readers.
The only journalist to explicitly highlight this problem is Brendan O'Neill, who points out that the Wikileaks Show leaves us feeling a bit thicker and more poorly informed than before:
"Truth becomes, not something we find out through critical study and investigation, but something we are handed by external forces … this is Truth as a religious-style revelation rather than Truth as the endpoint of thought, interrogation, question-asking, analysis. In reality, it is only through actively engaging with the world and its problems, through gathering facts and objectively analysing and organising them, that we can arrive at any Truth worth its name," he writes.
The journalist Claud Cockburn, who created the foreign policy scandalsheet The Week in the 1930s that later became the model for Private Eye, and many others, made a similar point many years ago, in his memoir A Discord of Trumpets. Cockburn wrote:
"To hear people talking about facts you would think that they lay about like pieces of gold in the Yukon days, waiting to be picked up - arduous it is true, but still definitely visible - by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only how to get them to market. Such a view is evidently and dangerously naive".
Cockburn's point - and do read it in his own words - was that stories began with a subjective point of view, around which the facts were organised. This idea of the journalist as a flawed medium was heresy, and perhaps upsetting, Cockburn recognized - but it was healthier, as it implied a rational, critical audience and demanded a plurality of "views":
"One was reminded of the atheistic young man who has told the believer that he would never believe anything he could not understand, to which the believer replied, 'Young man, your beliefs are likely to be small.'"
The internet has made concealment of information much harder, and that's good. I'm not knocking the information distribution system Assange has created. But in the face of this, power doesn't simply keel over and admit defeat. And Assange may simply have invented a new form of concealment - the information disclosed is both edited and highly selective.
The nature of news and journalism hasn't really changed. We want the world explained, the dots joined, and factoids are a poor substitute, no matter how sensational the trappings. We know that information isn't knowledge, and sometimes barely causes a ripple.
(Young weighs into the Wikileaks-Media relationship here - it's a must-read.) ®
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