I spent eight years at InfoWorld working as a gossip columnist and know a thing or two about news leaks. So here is the gossip columnist’s view of this week’s huge Wikileaks story about U. S. diplomatic cables. It comes down, frankly, to a squandered opportunity.

Wikileaks is a garbage dump for embarrassing information. When it is about truly bad guys or even just the other guy (not us) most see some value in the site, but those in power really hate it and so do the media, which might surprise you.

Maybe an example will help. Back in the early 1990s I got a call one day from someone at Apple who wanted to tell me about the company’s product plans. We spoke for more than an hour, hung up, then he called back again with details he’d forgotten to mention the first time. Later by e-mail he followed-up the conversation with a spreadsheet containing Apple’s complete product road map for the coming 18 months including not just product code names but even component part numbers! In those days Apple wasn’t the tight operation it is today but nothing like this had ever happened before or, I’m guessing, since. It was the equivalent in PC circles of a Wikileak, yet I didn’t immediately write about it.

I was a gossip columnist in a hyper-competitive news market, here was a ton of information that could clearly fill dozens of stories, so why didn’t I write it? Two reasons: 1) I didn’t want to risk compromising my very reckless source who just might call me again, and; 2) I preferred to cover it not as an information dump but rather as the dozens of stories it deserved to be.

By keeping quiet we knew for the next 18 months everything Apple was going to do and were able to consistently be the first to write about it. It became a simple matter of corroborating the spreadsheet then writing the story, preferably a week or two before the actual product introduction. We drove Apple nuts, probably contributed to the company’s current paranoia, and made millions for InfoWorld and its parent company, International Data Group.

They call it the news business, remember.

Wikileaks, in contrast, is anarchistic journalism. Wikileaks takes the approach of just dumping on the web the actual documents for the rest of us to dig around in. One shot and they are done, which isn’t journalism but IS news. In one sense this is very generous in that anyone with time on their hands can probably dig through that material and find an untold story or two, but from the perspective of a professional journalist it is squandering material for the sake of spectacle.

Wikileaks is just showing-off.

The comparison to this leak that was made over and over in the press has been the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg and published simultaneously back in 1971 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. How was that any different from Wikileaks? For Ellsberg — the leaker — there may have been no real difference. But for the two newspapers involved, the decision to print it all in a single edition came down to a worry that simply writing story after story based on the papers would result in a clamp-down by the Department of Justice and no news after that first story. So they printed it all — an astounding act that went completely against the concept of the “news hole,” that limited amount of space available in every newspaper to tell the stories of the day. For one day back in 1971, the Times and Post became like the Internet — almost infinitely deep.

It is noteworthy that despite winning the inevitable legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, neither paper ever did anything like that again.

We saw that same media hesitancy this past weekend when the Department of State began issuing warnings about the impending Wikileaks publication. Those warnings came, I’m sure, courtesy of tips from the newspapers that were getting an early look at the Wikileaks material in exchange for assisting in its promotion. The Department of State knew what was coming because the newspapers told them.

And why did Wikileaks need the assistance of those newspapers? Because Wikileaks feared that even its multi-homed international server strategy could be undermined by some covert CIA or NSA action. But not even the NSA can afford to piss-off the New York Times, so the files were released.

I have no doubt that Wikileaks could have been stopped and that the U. S. government very consciously decided not to do so, which is another interesting story in its own right. Why did they let it happen?

Note: Wikileaks is down today probably due to action by Amazon.com, apparently Wikileaks’s primary host for the USA despite all those stories about Icelandic hosting and global peers. I’m sure it will be back up shortly, however.

If China can subvert the Internet you can be sure the NSA can, too.

The newspapers would clearly have preferred to milk the Wikileaks material for Pulitzer Prizes, possibly trading the withholding of a story or two in exchange for getting an exclusive from the White House on something else. It happens all the time. But Wikileaks, the emerging and very scary face of news on the Internet, wouldn’t do it that way.

I get the feeling that a mantle of sorts has been passed.