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WikiLeaks, secrets and a distant memoryBY: Dan Rottenberg 12.28.2010
To Hilary Clinton, the recent WikiLeaks release of confidential diplomatic cables constituted “an attack on the international community.” But if, like me, you’ve ever practiced journalism or government in a small town, you’re likely to shrug and ask, “What else is new?”
WikiLeaks and the end of privacy:
To Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the recent WikiLeaks release of some 250,000 cables between U.S. embassies and the State Department constituted “an attack on the international community.” To Professor Paul Schroeder of the University of Illinois, writing in the New York Times, releasing confidential diplomatic correspondence is “like using dynamite in a construction zone.”
Not to be outdone in the hyperbole sweepstakes, the Times columnist David Brooks pronounces such breaches of diplomatic privacy a threat to “the great achievement of civilization… the fact that we live our lives amid order and chaos.”
But if, like me, you’ve ever practiced journalism or government in a small town— which is, after all, what the whole world has effectively become in the age of the Internet— you’re likely to shrug and ask, “What else is new?”
In the mid-1960s I spent the first four years of my career at the Commercial-Review in Portland, Indiana, a county-seat town of 7,000 souls. Portland was large enough to support a daily newspaper but small enough that word of mouth was the fastest means of conveying information and misinformation alike. As a result, the paper’s five-person news staff spent almost as much time and energy chasing rumors as we did reporting real news.
In one case, it was confidently reported to us that five prominent Portland women had been arrested for prostitution in Fort Wayne, an hour’s drive to the north. “It was in the Fort Wayne newspapers!” people told us, day after day. “Why are you covering this up?”
I was eager to sink my teeth into this astonishing story, not to mention eager to prove that I wasn’t a cover-upper. So I was surprised by the tranquil manner with which my editor, Tom Witherspoon, received these reports. I was a naive 22-year-old who had spent his entire previous life in New York and Philadelphia and whose knowledge of small towns was derived entirely from Sinclair Lewis, Norman Rockwell and heroic Thomas Hart Benton murals on post office walls; Tom was a skeptical 30-year-old veteran of small-town journalism. Big difference.
“Bring me the clipping from the Fort Wayne paper,” Tom would tell one and all who approached him. Their reply, invariably, was: “I don’t have it, but my aunt (or brother, or neighbor) saw it.”
Still, everyone in town seemed so sure. Who in such a noble heartland community, I wondered, could possibly make something like that up?
“Tom,” I said finally, “we’ll look like fools or worse if we ignore this story.”
Tom fixed me with a bemused smile. “You want to look into this?” he replied. “OK, be my guest.”
I spent the better part of a day investigating. I phoned the Fort Wayne vice squad. I perused recent back issues of the Fort Wayne newspapers. I tried to trace the origins of the rumor.
Sure enough, I found that five women had been arrested for prostitution in Fort Wayne. Both papers there had published two-paragraph items reporting the arrests and providing the women’s names and ages. But none of the women lived in Portland.
So what had happened? As far as I could determine, someone from Portland had read the report and speculated— jokingly or maliciously— that the prostitutes were really Portland women using pseudonyms. Word of mouth did the rest.
Tom subsequently moved on (to a big city! Dayton!). Shortly after I succeeded him as editor, another hot story crossed my desk— this one completely true:
One Saturday morning a mother in Indianapolis dropped her 15-year-old daughter off for her weekly lesson at an art school, and the girl promptly disappeared. The Indianapolis police were confronted with three obvious possibilities: Either the girl had run away, or she’d been kidnapped or murdered.
For whatever reason, the police concluded that their best hope of finding the girl lay in keeping her disappearance a secret. They prevailed on the Indianapolis media to suppress the story, and the media complied.
Although Portland is 90 miles northeast of Indianapolis, the story was important to me because the girl came from a prominent Portland family. Her grandmother, aunt and uncle ran a jewelry store in the heart of town that had been a local fixture for decades. Everybody in town knew them. I couldn’t have suppressed that story even if I’d wanted to— and the Indianapolis police recognized that it would be futile to ask me.
So for the next four days, while the Indianapolis media uttered not a word about the missing girl, the Commercial-Review’s front page trumpeted every last detail we could scrounge from the Indianapolis police and the girl’s family and friends. In Indianapolis, the police and media could play God with information; in Portland we enjoyed no such luxury.
On the fifth day, the girl returned to her Indianapolis home on her own; it turned out she had hopped a plane to New York for a getaway lark. But the point of my parable is this: Information-wise, in the Internet age the whole world has become one giant Portland, Indiana. In Washington, as in Portland, government can’t keep secrets any more than it can hold back the tides.
According to the Census Department, more than 20% of Americans live in towns like Portland. These 60 million or so Americans instinctively understand that total secrecy is impossible, and they’ve consciously or unconsciously adapted their lives accordingly. (They know better, for example, than to post nude photos of themselves on Facebook.) For better or worse, the rest of the world must now make the same adjustment.♦
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