What’s The Difference Between A Journalist And A Watchdog?

Sorry, no punch line. Although readers should feel free to provide one. It’s actually a question that is raised and answered in a Wired Op-Ed that wonders if Wikileaks would be subject to the privilege afforded investigative journalists to refrain from identifying sources. The author says that under current case law, Wikileaks wouldn’t qualify, because it really doesn’t engage in “investigative journalism.” That is, according to the author, Jonathan Peters, Wikileaks merely finds the raw information and disseminates it. It really doesn’t add context or commentary to what it puts up. And that may very likely result in courts deciding that whatever it is, it is not a journalist. That’s where the “watchdog” concept comes in. Peters thinks “watchdogs, such as Wikileaks, should be granted a similar privilege. Peters would grant the privilege to “anyone who collects information about matters of public concern for dissemination to the public.” He acknowledges that the privilege is “broad.” Ya think? It seems to me that it applies to just about anyone who writes anything on the Internet. “Public concern” is a pretty big umbrella. And it makes me think of Judge David Sentelle’s concurring opinion in the Judith Miller decision, where he posed the following question:

Would it not be possible for a government official wishing to engage in the sort of unlawful leaking under investigation in the present controversy to call a trusted friend or a political ally, advise him to set up a web log (which I understand takes about three minutes) and then leak to him under a promise of confidentiality the information which the law forbids the official to disclose?

To the extent the journalist’s privilege requires that the person claiming it actually be a journalist, I always thought Judge Sentelle’s concern was a little overblown. But it hits a little closer to home to when you start talking about the “watchdog” privilege.