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The Evolution & State of Journalism Becomes a Key Focus in Bradley Manning’s Trial

Professor Yochai Benkler

The defense in Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial was able to successfully qualify Professor Yochai Benkler of Harvard University as an expert on the “networked Fourth Estate,” who could discuss research he had done on WikiLeaks and how it fit into the “networked Fourth Estate.”

What this meant was the defense could present testimony on how WikiLeaks is, in fact, a legitimate journalistic organization and not some kind of criminal enterprise worthy of the wide government investigation, which the United States Justice Department launched into the organization after it released the information Manning is charged with disclosing.

It was incredibly significant as it gave the defense the ability to explicitly challenge the charge of “aiding the enemy”—that Manning would have known when he provided information to WikiLeaks that he was giving information to the enemy.

The defense was also able to challenge another charge—that he “wantonly “caused “to be published on the internet intelligence belonging to the United States government, having knowledge that intelligence published on the internet is accessible to the enemy.” If WikiLeaks was a legitimate journalistic organization, as Benkler testified in thorough detail, it would not have been “wantonly” to provide information to the organization.

But, in terms of increasing public understanding of this organization and how it fits into journalism in the 21st Century, the new information economy, there was no person better than Benkler to put on the stand to contextualize and demystify this organization, which prosecutors had sought to present as an organization committed to exfiltrating state secrets of governments through insiders in agencies, institutions or corporations.

What is the “Networked Fourth Estate”? 

“The networked Fourth Estate is the set of practices, organizing models technologies, that together come to fill the role that in the 20th Century we associated with the free press,” Benkler explained. “Essentially, the cluster, if we could, of the Fourth Estate as the way in which the press provides a public check on the three classes of branches of government. The networked Fourth Estate is essentially the cluster of practices and technologies and organizations that fill that role in the 21st model of network information production.”

Asked by military prosecutor Cpt. Joe Morrow if the “networked Fourth Estate” was really just journalism, Benkler replied, “Mostly it refers to journalism when we’re talking about its role in the construction of democracy.” However, it can also be used to discuss “a cluster of typical organizational changes that are “primarily related to the rise of the internet and have appeared and reappeared and multiple industries over this time have been affected in this form.”

Morrow said he was not sure he understood the “networked Fourth Estate,” what Benkler was talking about. The professor’s intellect was too much for him to handle, but military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, understood perfectly well what Benkler described.

LIND: Am I understanding you correctly in saying that you’re basically looking at, you know, in the last century traditional news media and the way people got news was through newspapers. Before that, I don’t know, a telegram or something like that or a cable. As technology evolved, now you’re getting more people on the internet that are sharing things?

BENKLER: That’s at the core of it.

Manning’s defense attorney David Coombs asked how the networked Fourth Estate differed from traditional media.

“You see important roles for some traditional media like the Times, Guardian and BBC, but you see them complemented by other smaller for profit organizations,” Benkler answered. One can see non-profit organizations, like WikiLeaks, academics and small commercial outfits “interacting with the large traditional organizations that today create this new model of network journalism.”

WikiLeaks is clearly a part of the “networked Fourth Estate.” For one, it did collaborate with The New York TimesThe Guardian, and Der Spiegel on the publication of information. It also, similar to the rise of prominent bloggers in the 2000s, influenced news with various media organizations feeding off material the organization was publishing to its website. [cont’d.]

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."