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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 26, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
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What's troubling about this incident is that MSM will "report" on the report without doing any true reporting or fact checking. MSM should stop "reporting news" from people with an agenda. Anyone who was willing to auction "news" should not be taken seriouly without further investigation.

MSM should do their job and stop doing the Cliff's Notes version.

Posted by: rlj1 | July 26, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

rlj1, the media should report on stories. obviously documents produced by julian assage should be taken with requisite grains of salt, but EVERYONE and their mother has an agenda. what matters are the facts.

also, ezra - don't forget fresh air!

Posted by: cinephile | July 26, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

So, we applaud the brave leakers of classified material as long as they support our position(anti-war, freedom of the press etc.) but do we prosecute them when their righteous indignation results to the recruiting of a new jihadi who dons a suicide vest or plants an IED?
When is it required by leakers or the media to consider the consequences of their actions? When does the media require that their own face consequences?

Posted by: ostrogoth | July 26, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

There is always a balance between public declarations of support for an invasion and reports of successes and opposition to an invasion and reports of how it is not going well in certain places. The problem is that 99% of the US media only gives the success side of the equation about 90% success stories, or sanitized versions of setbacks. This leak provides a much needed look in to the other side of the invasion that the administration would rather we not see. And I say this as a firm Obama supporter, even though his Afghan policy is IMHO a disaster and more than the economy, will be problematic in his re-election. Very simply, he is not willing to take the heat for ending the Afghan misadventure and be labeled soft on defense, even though it seems clear that fighting the war is causing more death, destruction, and fueling more corruption (10x as much as opium production). Maybe in 2 years when he is up for reelection, the US presence can be smaller, which would be an improvement and might be enough to keep him from losing all support from anti-military adventurist folks...It's just another huge landmine, like the imploding economy and the Iraq debacle that Bush and the republicans left for him to detonate.

It's too bad that the memory of the average US voter is about 30 minutes, the attention span is about 30 seconds (note that this is how long a campaign commercial lasts), and American Idol gets more people to vote than an election does. If people would look at the previous 4 years, 2 under bush and the repubs and 2 under Obama, the choice would be easy to make and Obama and the dems win in a landslide.

Posted by: srw3 | July 26, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

do we prosecute them when their righteous indignation results to the recruiting of a new jihadi who dons a suicide vest or plants an IED?

Do we prosecute them when their desire for political payback results in blowing the cover of covert assets in the CIA?

Posted by: lol-lol | July 26, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

"When is it required by leakers or the media to consider the consequences of their actions?"

Never, the truth is the truth.

"When does the media require that their own face consequences?"

Never, first amendment protection.

Posted by: millionea81 | July 26, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

It's interesting to remember that a week ago, when Journolist was in the news, Ezra was all about lecturing the media on the ethics of publishing private communications. I guess that's only an issue when it's the personal privacy of Ezra's friends that's at stake. When, instead, publishing classified stuff might actually get people killed, somehow Ezra can't muster any concern.

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 26, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I want to take the lead of WP columnist Eugene Robinson to say that these documents may not be as large as they may seem. Check out my blog post on this topic:

Posted by: PowerWalkBlog | July 26, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Wikileaks is a welcome alternative to the monolithic cheerleading the mainstream media gives to this White House. Journalists haven't done much to hold this administration accountable for continuing the war in Afghanistan with an overstretched military and the private militia formerly known as Blackwater. Instead, we're told of an historical financial bill and an historical health care bill.

Posted by: goadri | July 26, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

"The database catalogued matériel that every unit had ordered: machine guns, Humvees, cash-counting machines, satellite phones."

The foregoing quote hit a memory node. Many, many years ago, as a contractor, I was involved in trying to assess the reliability of Army equipment, I discovered a data base,TAERS (The Army Equipment Record System). Examining the data entry specifications I said to myself,"Oh boy! My data needs are solved." and proceed with data extraction and analysis.A little along the way I discovered an apparent piece of unreliable equipment , the engine for an armored personnel carrier which had a mean time to failure of about 1000 hours. Looking into this I discovered that if an engine's alternator failed, the cost of replacement was charged to the reporting unit. However, if an engine failure was reported, the engine was replaced at no cost to the reporting unit. My recollection is that the battalion was the basic reporting unit and that battalion maintenance officers were charged with providing unit data to TAERS. The maintenance officers reported to the battalion commander one of whose evaluation criteria was to maintain 80% equipment readiness (availability). Miraculously, very few battalions failed to report 80% readiness This seemed odd,given much of the data I recovered from TAERS. I tried to find other data sources but then found another job.

Posted by: dwbarker1 | July 26, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

“I think one of the most interesting things about the entire Wikileaks situation is watching the different coverage of blogs and traditional journalism. Fox News initially led their coverage as a sub-headline under a lead about BP CEO Tony Hayward stepping down. The Washington Post also had the leak story playing second fiddle to a story–the immigration debate. CBS News had just two small headlines about the story. Yet, the Huffington Post ran a picture of soldiers pointing rifles under the red headline: THE WAR LOGS: A Devastating Portrait of the Failing War in Afghanistan. The Drudge Report ran a similar headline across the top of its front page tha called the situation a “nightmare.”

It is no secret that blogs are not tied to the same code of conduct that their traditional counterparts are. That fact gives blogs, in general, greater latitude to play with a story’s focus, angle, tone, and sources or lack thereof. While this may not be kosher with the majority of the traditional media, it indeed serves an important purpose. It breathes life into stories, offers independent viewpoints, and highlights facets of a story that would otherwise be left in the dark. Although some blogs can be toxic in both their rhetoric and lack of validity, on the whole blogs provide an important context to stories that traditional journalism cannot. Sometimes stories may merit all caps headlines and red font, and that’s exactly what bloggers are good at.


Posted by: mlschafer | July 26, 2010 11:10 PM | Report abuse

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