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Nonfiction Matters
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Leaks, Journalism, and How To Teach Young People How to Research and Write

This weekend the Times magazine will feature a long article by Times editor Bill Keller about the Wikileaks story. Here it is:
 (and if you dig around in the Times site, there are videos to go with the article, as well as a book, available only as an e-book, with even more). I urge anyone one of you who, as a parent, a teacher, a librarian, works with young people who are being asked to research and write papers, to read it. Because this article captures the borderlines between two worlds — a borderline that we, crucially, have to teach young people to respect and defend.

Keller’s article tells his version of the story of Wikileaks — the relationship between the Times and Julian Assange, the nature of the material Assange made available, and how the Times (as well as respected papers in England, Germany, and France) handled it. This is the key point — from Assange’s POV, and those who believe some verison of that old Electronic Frontier Foundation phrase “information wants to be free” –obtaining and releasing material is in and of itself a good. Governments, banks, the military try to hide things. We the people can get past their barriers, and we have a right to know. In fact our knowing, and filtering for ourselves, is exactly what should happen. Although this is not part of Keller’s piece, I could easily imagine an advocate for the POV pointing to Tunisia and now Yemen, Egypt, and the recent release of the Palestine Papers by Al-Jezeera ( as showing the great value of disclosure. Keller makes just the opposite case.

In order to decide what to release the Times carefully sifted the information — taking out names of people who might be exposed to harm if it were known that they had shared information with the American military or government, taking out information that might put troops at risk. The paper assembled a toop of seasoned reporters to weigh each release and evaluate it before sharing it. And thus the Times gave us news, not a dump. That is what we need to teach kids — and I think we should give them the Keller piece with their first research paper. Our job is to help them value the filtering process, the shaping process, through which clouds of potential information are shaped into narratives, arguments, well-crafted points of view. And just the other day, Evegeny Morozov spoke about the “dark side of internet freedom” — how in fact governments use social media to collect information about protesters — so in places like Iran, the internet made it easier for the government to crack down Morozov argued that what happened in Tunisia was that the army decided to switch allegiences, not that Facebook created a change in government.

The internet is creating new possibilities, ones young people are exploring. But it is our job to show them how responsible adults shape the flood of information — the journalist is a filter, not an open door — and to remind them that speaking on a cell phone, emailing, tweeting, txting may all seem like private acts, but they are all easily monitored. And so even now old fashioned politics and power are as important as ever. Kids will be better at finding their way around the net than many of us, but we can still introduce them to Machiavelli so they understand what they are finding.


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