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July 29, 2010, 10 a.m.

WikiLeaks and a failure of transparency

In all the kerfuffle this week around WikiLeaks and its disclosure of 91,000+ documents in its Afghan War Diary, it seems to me that a fundamental irony has been overlooked: A nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to imposing transparency on reluctant governments seems to think the rules don’t apply at home.

Go to the WikiLeaks “about” page, and you can see what I mean. There’s lots of rah-rah about rooting out corruption freedom of the press and why the site is “so important.” But there’s not a peep about organizational governance, where their money comes from or where it goes.

In some cases, such opacity is by mistake. But in WikiLeaks’ case, it is by design. Just two weeks before Afghan War Diary was released, Wired published an enterprising story on WikiLeaks’ finances. The reporter, Kim Zetter, tracked down a vice president of the Berlin-based Wau Holland Foundation, which apparently handles most contributions to WikiLeaks’ contributions. The story provided some idea as to the scale of the WikiLeaks budget — the group needs about $200,000 a year for basic operations — but the vice president offered only a promise of more disclosure next month. And from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange? No comment.

I understand the need to protect whistleblowers and other sources. But when it comes to the group’s finances, can’t they cut out all the James Bond stuff? I don’t need names and addresses of donors, but can’t we have a little more transparency and accountability?

This isn’t just a matter of idle curiosity. Love or hate WikiLeaks, the organization is doing more than its share to transform journalism. And it is doing so in dramatic fashion by fully unharnessing the power and creativity of the nonprofit model. As Ruth McCambridge noted in the Nonprofit Quarterly earlier this week, WikiLeaks “may be the soul of nonprofithood.”

If that’s the case, then the stakes involved in WikiLeaks’ own willingness to operate with transparency are quite high.

Perhaps the most-repeated criticism of the nonprofit model in journalism is that an organization that relies in whole or in part on philanthropy will become beholden to its funders and will compromise its journalistic principles in order to ensure continued funding.

That’s simply not the case — not any more than the newsroom of a for-profit newspaper would have a self-imposed ban on negative stories about car dealers, department stores, and other (remaining) major advertisers.

But the secrecy invites speculation. A July 3 post at Cryptome.org from a “WikiLeaks insider” alleges that the organization had become overly dependent on “keep alive donations” from left wing politicians in Iceland. It warns ominously: “Sooner or later it will be payback time. And payback will be in the form of political bias in WIKILEAKS output.”

WikiLeaks does its part to fuel the speculation and undercut its credibility as well. In the Q&A on its “about” page, WikiLeaks raises this question: “Is WikiLeaks a CIA front?” I’ll save you a click back and tell you that the answer is no. But do we really need this kind of drama from an organization that presents itself as an honest broker of information? Of course not. It only serves to undercut WikiLeaks’ credibility.

If WikiLeaks really wants to promote transparency, it should start with its own operations.

POSTED     July 29, 2010, 10 a.m.
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