New York Times on Wikileaks

The Media Equation
WikiLeaks Taps Power of the Press
Perhaps. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Think back to 2008, when WikiLeaks simply released documents that suggested the government of Kenya had looted its country. The follow-up in the mainstream media was decidedly muted.

Then last spring, WikiLeaks adopted a more journalistic approach — editing and annotating a 2007 video from Baghdad in which an Apache helicopter fired on men who appeared to be unarmed, including two employees of Reuters. The reviews were mixed, with some suggesting that the video had been edited to political ends, but the disclosure received much more attention in the press.

In July, WikiLeaks began what amounted to a partnership with mainstream media organizations, including The New York Times, by giving them an early look at the so-called Afghan War Diary, a strategy that resulted in extensive reporting on the implications of the secret documents.

Then in October, the heretofore classified mother lode of 250,000 United States diplomatic cables that describe tensions across the globe was shared by WikiLeaks with Le Monde, El Pais, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. (The Guardian shared documents with The New York Times.) The result was huge: many articles have come out since, many of them deep dives into the implications of the trove of documents.

Notice that with each successive release, WikiLeaks has become more strategic and has been rewarded with deeper, more extensive coverage of its revelations. It’s a long walk from WikiLeaks’s origins as a user-edited site held in common to something more akin to a traditional model of publishing, but seems to be in keeping with its manifesto to deliver documents with “maximum possible impact.”

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s founder and guiding spirit, apparently began to understand that scarcity, not ubiquity, drives coverage of events. Instead of just pulling back the blankets for all to see, he began to limit the disclosures to those who would add value through presentation, editing and additional reporting. In a sense, Mr. Assange, a former programmer, leveraged the processing power of the news media to build a story and present it in comprehensible ways. (Of course, as someone who draws a paycheck from a mainstream journalism outfit, it may be no surprise that I continue to see durable value in what we do even amid the journalistic jujitsu WikiLeaks introduces.)

And by publishing only a portion of the documents, rather than spilling information willy-nilly and recklessly endangering lives, WikiLeaks could also strike a posture of responsibility, an approach that seems to run counter to Mr. Assange’s own core anarchism.

Although Mr. Assange is now arguing that the site is engaged in what he called a new kind of “scientific journalism,” his earlier writings suggest he believes the mission of WikiLeaks is to throw sand in the works of what he considers corrupt, secretive and inherently evil states. He initiated a conspiracy in order to take down what he saw as an even greater conspiracy.

“WikiLeaks is not a news organization, it is a cell of activists that is releasing information designed to embarrass people in power,” said George Packer, a writer on international affairs at The New Yorker. “They simply believe that the State Department is an illegitimate organization that needs to be exposed, which is not really journalism.”

By shading his radicalism and collaborating with mainstream outlets, Mr. Assange created a comfort zone for his partners in journalism. They could do their jobs and he could do his.

“The notion that this experience has somehow profoundly changed journalism, the way that information gets out or changed the way that diplomacy happens, seems rather exaggerated,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, which used information from the leaks to report a series of large articles.

“It was a big deal, but not an unfamiliar one. Consumers of information became privy to a lot of stuff that had been secret before,” Mr. Keller said. “The scale of it was unusual, but was it different in kind from the Pentagon Papers or revelation of Abu Ghraib or government eavesdropping? I think probably not.”

In this case, the media companies could also take some comfort in knowing that the current trove did not contain, with a few notable exceptions, any earth-shaking revelations. No thinking citizen was surprised to learn that diplomats don’t trust each other and say so behind closed doors. But as it has became increasingly apparent that WikiLeaks was changing the way information is released and consumed, questions were raised about the value of traditional journalistic approaches.

“People from the digital world are always saying we don’t need journalists at all because information is everywhere and there in no barrier to entry,” said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School. “But these documents provide a good answer to that question. Even though journalists didn’t dig them out, there is a great deal of value in their efforts to explain and examine them. Who else would have had the energy or resources to do what these news organization have done?”

WikiLeaks certainly isn’t being afforded the same protections we give other media outlets in free countries. It has come under significant attack as PayPal, Amazon and Visa have all tried to bar WikiLeaks from their services, a move that would seem unthinkable had it been made against mainstream newspapers. (Can you imagine the outcry if a credit card company decided to cut off The Washington Post because it didn’t like what was on the front page?)

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, has called for Mr. Assange’s execution and Sen. Joseph Lieberman has said that he should be charged with treason while Sarah Palin has called him “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.” (Indeed, Senator Lieberman has suggested that the Justice Department should examine the role of The New York Times in the leaks.)

Mr. Packer is very much against the prosecution of WikiLeaks on grounds of treason because, he said, “discerning the legal difference between what WikiLeaks did and what news organizations do is difficult and would set a terrible precedent.”

But Mr. Assange, who is currently being held in prison in Britain on sex charges brought in Sweden, is a complicated partner. So far, WikiLeaks has been involved in a fruitful collaboration, a new form of hybrid journalism emerging in the space between so-called hacktivists and mainstream media outlets, but the relationship is an unstable one.

WikiLeaks may be willing to play ball with newspapers for now, but the organization does not share the same values or objectives. Mr. Assange and the site’s supporters see transparency as the ultimate objective, believing that sunshine and openness will deprive bad actors of the secrecy they require to be successful. Mainstream media may spend a lot of time trying to ferret information out of official hands, but they largely operate in the belief that the state is legitimate and entitled to at least some of its secrets.

And Mr. Assange has placed a doomsday card on the table: he has said that if WikiLeaks’s existence is threatened, the organization would be willing to spill all the documents in its possession out into the public domain, ignoring the potentially mortal consequences. (His lawyers told ABC News that they expect he will be indicted on espionage charges in the United States.) Mr. Packer said such an act “is something no journalistic organization would ever do, or threaten to do.”

And what if WikiLeaks was unhappy with how one of its ad hoc media partners had handled the information it provided or became displeased with the coverage of WikiLeaks? The same guns in the info-war that have been aimed at its political and Web opponents could be trained on media outlets.

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and an author and a contributor to The New Yorker who has written extensively about Afghanistan, said that the durability of the WikiLeaks model remained an open question.

“I’m skeptical about whether a release of this size is ever going to take place again,” he said, “in part because established interests and the rule of law tend to come down pretty hard on incipient movements. Think of the initial impact of Napster and what subsequently happened to them.”

Of course, Napster is no longer around but the insurgency it represented all but tipped the music industry.

“Right now, media outlets are treating this as a transaction with a legitimate journalistic organization,” he said. “But at some point, they are going to have to evolve into an organization that has an address and identity or the clock will run out on that level of collaboration.”

Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said that WikiLeaks had already changed the rules by creating a situation where competitive news organizations were now cooperating to share a scoop.

“WikiLeaks represents a new kind of advocacy, one that brings to mind the activism of the ’60s, one in which people want to get their own hands on information and do their own digging,” she said. “What you are seeing is just a crack in the door right now. No one can tell where this is really going.”