The NYT has always been a supporter of the First Amendment. In print. For itself. But its record of supporting it for writers on the web has been spotty. And when the chips are down, when we need a friend the most, you can be pretty sure the Times will be on the other, wrong, side.
It happened in the very early days of the web, with the Communication Decency Act. The Times, and many politicians of both parties, including the President and Vice-President (Clinton and Gore) wrote, passed and signed legislation that basically said the First Amendment doesn't apply to the web. Their apologists say they knew the courts would overturn the law (they did) but that's not a good answer. What if someday the courts are just as cowardly as the other two branches. It won't go down easy among web users. But it would be nice if those people who always heap praise on themselves for their courage, actually delivered when it counts.
And it's happening with WikiLeaks. Obviously, the role they played was exactly the same role that the Times played. And if the Times deserves protection so does WikiLeaks. That's not just me saying it. James Goodale, their own lawyer who fought for them in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 says so as well. Yet the Times keeps attacking WikiLeaks, in some pretty undignified ways, trying to draw a distinction between what they do and WikiLeaks, where no such distinction exists.
It happened again this weekend in a piece by David Carr, their media columnist. He asks if WikiLeaks is over. My answer, for what it's worth, is this. If WikiLeaks is over then the NY Times is over too. Because the NY Times is WikiLeaks and vice versa. No one needs a publication that only prints information that the government wants them to publish. It's as pointless as a road to nowhere. The Times only has value as long as it's willing to do things that create trouble in government (and of course elsewhere). The Times knows this, they brag about it. But for some reason they don't see themselves when they look at WikiLeaks. What's the difference? (See the subtext for my response to the usual arguments.)
I know the usual added-value arguments. It's not that I mind added value, I like it, actually. But it isn't an excuse to deny First Amendment protection to an organization that factors news differently, that doesn't have the business model of the Times, therefore can offer a simpler, more pure form of news.
I don't think either of them are over. I think the Times will live to leak again. And maybe WikiLeaks the organization is over (thanks to the banks who won't let us contribute to them, and the press that ignores that huge story, and the British and Swedish governments, obviously acting in consort with the US, in incarcerating Assange). But the reverberations of WikiLeaks are still very much being felt. And of course the net is going to be used to subvert secrecy of corrupt governments in the future. If I didn't believe that would continue, then I would feel there is no hope for mankind.
The Times doesn't have an exclusive on intellect. Their readers have quite a bit of it, and can get the information they want even if the Times doesn't want to provide it. The Times is on much more precarious ground than internet leaking is. Because they are still depending on a Maginot-like set of barriers to entry to keep the hordes away from their bastion. Sad that they still view the world this way. Because it changed a long long time ago. And WikiLeaks is the ultimate reminder, that we don't, any longer, even need them to expose corrupt government.