WikiLeaks and the press
There's a lot to be said about the 92,000 Afghanistan documents that WikiLeaks released this morning, but I'm not the guy to say it. Go read Danger Room for that. I am interested, however, in the press strategy behind the leak. In a recent New Yorker profile, Julian Assange, the site's founder, explained how frustrated he was that he couldn't get major media organizations to pay attention to his documents. So he'd been developing some unorthodox strategies:
In 2007, he published thousands of pages of secret military information detailing a vast number of Army procurements in Iraq and Afghanistan. He and a volunteer spent weeks building a searchable database, studying the Army’s purchasing codes, and adding up the cost of the procurements -- billions of dollars in all. The database catalogued matériel that every unit had ordered: machine guns, Humvees, cash-counting machines, satellite phones. Assange hoped that journalists would pore through it, but barely any did. “I am so angry,” he said. “This was such a [bleeped for your protection] fantastic leak: the Army’s force structure of Afghanistan and Iraq, down to the last chair, and nothing.” ...
On the principle that people won’t regard something as valuable unless they pay for it, he has tried selling documents at auction to news organizations; in 2008, he attempted this with seven thousand internal e-mails from the account of a former speechwriter for Hugo Chávez. The auction failed. He is thinking about setting up a subscription service, where high-paying members would have early access to leaks.
This time, he went with something a bit more traditional: an embargo. The New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel -- note the international flavor of the group -- got the documents weeks ago, but couldn't write about them until they went live last night That exclusivity seems to have been enough. The documents have been everywhere this morning.
Or was it? In recent weeks, WikiLeaks has gotten a lot of publicity on its own. There was a New Yorker profile. CNN had a long interview with the founder on their front page. Increasingly, the site's brand has its own power, which means people pay attention when it tells them to pay attention. It looks like WikiLeaks got the press to pay attention to its stories by becoming part of the story.
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