In the latest example of a society allergic to measured responses and shades of gray, the reaction to the WikiLeaks dump has been embarrassingly in the red. Julian Assange is a hero, a freedom fighter, a speaker of truth to power. Or he’s a traitor, a rapist, a thief. Publishing the catty chitchat of American diplomats is either a courageous stand against the machine (even braver than Ellsberg because he’s got no psychiatrist) or a cowardly flight from Johnny Law.
The hysteria had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton-who would have thought she’s such a chatty Cathy after all these years of manufactured public appearances and staged press conferences?-saying that this leak endangers thousands. It doesn’t.
But the problem with this WikiLeaks dump-this latest one, that is, not with all of them, not with the ones about police killings in Kenya, Somalis trying to assassinate government officials, methods to rise to higher levels within the Church of Scientology, showing Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. forces, which may actually have put lives at risk, the hacked Climatic Research Unit emails revealing alarmist scientists-is that this particular airing shows a critical inability to distinguish between that which can be dumped and that which ought to be.
Observant Jews are familiar with the concept of lashon hara-“evil tongue” or gossip. For centuries rabbis have ruled that malicious gossip-even if it’s true-is a serious sin. Many consider it akin to murder, if not in seriousness at least in permanence. When you steal from someone you can be ordered to make your victim whole; but when you murder him or gossip about him you can never really repair the damage. That seems foolishly quaint in the TMZ-Gawker era, where every celebrity booger must be photographed, every perceived hypocrisy exposed on behalf of page views and the greater good.
But a strict observance of the prohibition against lashon hara would make it hard to practice journalism at all. As a journalist for 15 years (not to mention a maker of political ads), I crush up against the concept of lashon hara constantly. Information that serves the public good is often embarrassing to the subject. The test of fairness and print-worthiness should be whether the delicious little tidbit is more than just embarrassing. Revelations such as “American diplomats think Canadians ‘carry a chip on their shoulder'” don’t clear the bar. And august mainstream media sources like The Washington Post and New York Times, which have been running daily, breathless, above-the-fold stories on the leaks should admit that “Medvedev plays Robin to Putin’s Batman” is no different from the “no, she di’int” throwdowns their tabloid competitors love to gin up between celebrity rivals.
The existence of WikiLeaks is a good thing. You can’t be in favor of democracy-and you certainly can’t be a journalist-if you don’t believe that the potential for exposure of wrongdoings helps keep those in positions of power accountable. However, just because something can be published doesn’t mean it should be. Privacy is not the same as “secretive” or “clandestine” or “obfuscating.” As a society, we benefit from the Internet’s unrivaled ability to blast infinite information freely. But that ability does not mean everything ought to be shared. If we have a “right to know” the contents of Hillary Clinton’s private communications with her staff, do we have a right to see photos of her showering, to hear tapes of her snoring, to read stolen letters she wrote to her parents?
At the end of the day, the line between news and gossip has never been drawn more clearly than in the children’s book The Great Brain. Boy genius Tom Fitzgerald starts his own tabloid to compete with his father’s establishment newspaper. Tom sends out kid reporters to eavesdrop and spy. In so doing, he solves the robbery of the town’s bank and also publishes tidbits like “Mrs. Haggerty’s nagging drives her husband to drink.”
Tom’s father praises him for solving the robbery. Then he tells him that the rest of the paper “is an invasion of privacy” that “performs no useful service for the community.” Then he takes apart Tom’s printing press, withholds his allowance, and makes him apologize.
Ken Kurson is a partner at Jamestown Associates, a political consulting firm, and the co-author with Rudy Giuliani of Leadership. This column first appeared at Reason.com.