When the massive data dump that was the Wikileaks Afghan War Logs showed up on my screen three weeks ago, I did what–apparently–no one else had yet done: read the whole thing. At the time, this seemed like Journalism 101. But by the time I finished [at the end of the week], I was more bored and overwhelmed than stimulated or enlightened. Because, as others had concluded by then, there really isn’t that much that’s earth-shattering in the logs. And I’ve been pondering what to say ever since .
Firstly, it’s worth discussing the fact of the leaks, because that is the most radical part of the story. Julian Assange revealed this data with a specific agenda: he is an avowed anti-war activist who intends his documents to help stop the machinery of conflict. He is also a tech evangelist who has become a vessel for the highest ambitions of that movement. According to Jay Rosen, Wikileaks is the first ‘stateless’ news organization, paying no regard to the interests of particular countries and evading the legal authority of any state over what it can and can’t release. The first point is true, as it would be of many whistleblowers. The second point is not: the site runs on Swedish servers, principally, so that’s the legal system under which it ought to be protected or prosecuted as the need may be. Even Assange acknowledges that. I’m getting really tired of the anarcho-libertarian, reinventing-the-wheel cries of the internet gurus.
Secondly, it’s worth discussing the method of the leaks, the fact that Assange thought fit to release them to three major newspapers–the New York Times, the Guardian and Spiegel, before posting the whole archive on the Wikileaks site. His explanation was that he wanted the story to the get the hype that comes from teasing the public. Maybe. My explanation was that he knows how news narratives are formed and acknowledges that big papers still matter.
The most interesting point to me, however, is how the papers thought to use the archives–they used them as the basis for analytical stories, so you saw individual nuggets from the archives show up in other stories, and they saw the fact of the leak as news, so you saw analyses of Assange himself. But the data dump that Assange wanted–news organizations just posting/summarizing his archive and linking to him, thereby spreading buzz–did not happen. Eric Schmitt of the Times put it best: “[W]e were not in any kind of partnership or collaboration with him. This was a source relationship. He’s making it sound like this was some sort of journalistic enterprise between WikiLeaks, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and that’s not what it was.”
The differing accounts show us something important about how mainstream journalists see themselves, and how they are seen by others: Assange, like much of the public, thinks of news reporting as mediating, as transcription-with-selective-redaction, and therefore expected that, by handing over documents, selected, to the papers, he would be treated by them as a peer. But newsfolk see news reporting as a process of cross-checking multiple transcribed lines and building the narrative that best approximates reality from that process. In that taxonomy, anyone who provides raw data–an interview, a picture, some video, a trove of documents–is just a source.
There’s another important reason that the Times refused to send Wikileaks a link: Assange did not see fit to remove the names of Afghan civilians who work as drivers, translators, informants etc. for the American and coalition forces. In effect, he put a target on their backs, and it’s clear that certain elements of the Afghan Taliban are already taking revenge. Enabling this kind of loss of life is unconscionable, not only from someone who thinks of himself as a journalistic peer of the big papers, but from anyone who claims to own a moral compass.
Now, in fairness, there were one or two real insights about the Pakistan-Taliban relationship that I gleaned from the archive, but like the NYT, I’m intending to include them in future writings on that subject, and not as a ‘story’ in their own light.