The press rejects its reason for being

The Press Rejects Its Reason For Being

by digby

Greenwald has a good post up this morning about his appearance on CNN yesterday and what it and the rest of the media's reaction to Wikileaks has to say about journalism. There are many fine points in the piece, but he mentions one zombie lie I'd really love to kill --- the one that all of these so-called reporters seem to have absorbed as if it's the received word of God --- the one that says Wikileaks dumped 260,000 cables indiscriminately on the internet.

Here's the truth, from an AP news report from December 3, 2010. There's no excuse for journalists not to know this by this point:

Respected news outlets collaborate with WikiLeaks

By The Associated Press

The diplomatic records exposed on WikiLeaks this week reveal not only secret government communications, but also an extraordinary collaboration between some of the world’s most respected news-media outlets and a website that is facing increasing pressure and criticism from governments worldwide.

Unlike earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of secret government military records, the group is releasing only a trickle of documents at a time from a trove of a quarter-million, and only after considering advice from five news organizations with which it chose to share all of the material.

“They are releasing the documents we selected,” Le Monde’s managing editor, Sylvie Kauffmann, said in an interview at the newspaper’s Paris headquarters.

WikiLeaks turned over all of the classified U.S. State Department cables it obtained to Le Monde, El Pais in Spain, The Guardian in Britain and Der Spiegel in Germany. The Guardian shared the material with The New York Times, and the five news organizations have been working together to plan the timing of their reports.

They also have been advising WikiLeaks on which documents to release publicly and what redactions to make to those documents, Kauffmann and others involved in the arrangement said.

Each publication suggested a way to remove names and details considered too sensitive, and “I suppose WikiLeaks chooses the one it likes,” El Pais Editor-in-Chief Javier Moreno said in a telephone interview from his Madrid office.

As stories are published, WikiLeaks uses its website to release the related cables. For example, The Guardian published an article yesterday based on diplomatic cables discussing the assassination of former Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko by radiation poisoning, and WikiLeaks quickly posted three cables on the same subject.

WikiLeaks, however, struggled to stay online today as corporations and governments moved to cut its access to the Internet. The site is essentially being chased around the Internet by hackers and government pressure. For now, it’s one step ahead of the opposition, but the site has been brought down numerous times over the course of a week.

EveryDNS — a Manchester, N.H.-based company that had been directing traffic to the website — stopped late yesterday after cyber attacks threatened the rest of its network. WikiLeaks responded by moving to a Swiss domain name, — and calling on activists for support. Two companies host the Swiss domain name, one of which is in France. The other is in Sweden.

Officials in France moved to ban WikiLeaks from servers there, with Industry Minister Eric Besson calling it unacceptable to host a site that “violates the secret of diplomatic relations and puts people protected by diplomatic secret in danger.”

The close arrangement between the website and the newspapers is unusual because it ties the news-media outlets more closely to WikiLeaks and reveals an unusual collaboration with a group facing intense international scrutiny, including a U.S. criminal investigation.

“In this case, what you have is news organizations partnering with an organization that very clearly has a different set of values,” said Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics professor at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

But McBride notes that the unique collaboration also forces some degree of journalistic standards on WikiLeaks, which in the past has released documents without removing information considered sensitive.

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told readers in an online exchange that the newspaper had suggested to its media partners and to WikiLeaks what information it believed should be withheld.

“We agree wholeheartedly that transparency is not an absolute good,” Keller wrote. “Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity.”

Days before releasing any of the latest documents, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appealed to the U.S. ambassador in London, asking the U.S. government to confidentially help him determine what needed to be redacted from the cables before they were publicly released. The ambassador refused, telling Assange to hand over stolen property. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called Assange’s offer “a half-hearted gesture to have some sort of conversation.”

U.S. officials submitted suggestions to the Times, which asked government officials to weigh in on some of the documents the newspaper and its partners wanted to publish.

“The other news organizations supported these redactions,” Keller wrote. “WikiLeaks has indicated that it intends to do likewise. And as a matter of news interest, we will watch their website to see what they do.”

Although Keller has emphasized to readers that the Times is “not a ‘media partner’” of WikiLeaks and that it did not receive the State Department documents from WikiLeaks, his public comments describe a working relationship with the group on the release of the material and decisions to withhold certain information.

Keller told the AP in an e-mail yesterday that advising WikiLeaks about removing names and other sensitive details was the responsible thing to do.

“We have no way of knowing what WikiLeaks will do, no clear idea what they make of our redactions, but if this to any degree prevents WikiLeaks from carelessly getting someone killed, I’m happy to do it,” he said. “I’d be interested to hear the arguments in favor of having WikiLeaks post its material unredacted.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week there was “an active, ongoing, criminal investigation” into WikiLeaks’ release of the material. He said the release jeopardized national security, diplomatic efforts and U.S. relationships around the world. He declined to equate WikiLeaks to traditional news organizations that enjoy certain free-press protections.

“I think one can compare the way in which the various news organizations that have been involved in this have acted, as opposed to the way in which WikiLeaks has,” Holder said. He did not elaborate on the distinction he sees between WikiLeaks and the publications.

The WikiLeaks documents have been compared to the Pentagon Papers, an internal government study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was completed in 1967. The documents were leaked in 1971 by former Defense Department aide Daniel Ellsberg and included many damaging revelations, including a memo that stated the reason for fighting in Vietnam was based far more on preserving U.S. prestige than preventing communism or helping the Vietnamese.

Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz rejects similaries between WikiLeaks and the Pentagon Papers.

“It’s not as if we’re still up against the Vietnam War; and everybody has a right — no, a duty, to play Daniel Ellsberg,” said Wilentz, whose books include The Rise of American Democracy and The Age of Reagan.

“But this is extremely dangerous, given the imperatives of diplomacy. Is there some profound deception of the American people and the world going on which, as with Ellsberg, requires an insider to, in effect, blow the whistle? I don’t get that sense. I get the sense that there are people out there, like the WikiLeaks people, who have a simpleminded idea of secrecy and transparency, who are simply offended by any state actions that are cloaked.”

But Ellsberg believes there are parallels to the documents he leaked nearly 40 years ago. He says that while early media reports about WikiLeaks focused on gossip and personalities, memos are now emerging that show greater U.S. involvement in Pakistan than the government acknowledged, a pattern revealed by the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam.

“This means the Obama administration is on a path that is as dangerous as can be,” Ellsberg says, noting Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. “I think the press did a disservice by leading with so much gossip, which isn’t terribly important.”

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former senior editor at Commentary magazine and author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, says WikiLeaks will have a “huge downside for historians” because it will encourage more secrecy. But he says he also wishes he had the chance to include WikiLeaks in his book and examine how a “nonstate actor” could “challenge frontally the U.S. security system.”

John Dower, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Embracing Defeat and the National Book Award finalist Cultures of War, praised WikiLeaks. Embracing Defeat, a history of Japan after World War II, and Cultures of War, a comparison between the George W. Bush administration and the Japanese leadership before Pearl Harbor, are both books about understanding how one’s foes think and the dangers of unchallenged opinions.

“The public benefits by understanding what’s going on,” Dower says. “The government is bending over backward to be secretive. We need to understand what is taking place and how we are perceived by others. In recent years, we’ve had failure of intelligence and failures of imagination. We don’t understand the other side. We don’t know why people are being drawn to the terrorists.”

“I don’t see any reason to be worried about WikiLeaks. The government has all kinds of secrets, secrets that no leaker will ever get close to,” said Seymour Hersh, the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter known for uncovering the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War and for his reports on the planning for the war in Iraq and the alleged torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.

“There will always be a struggle between what the government knows and what the public can find out. That’s the reporter’s job, to find out. What’s happening now is about free expression. It’s the First Amendment. It’s the First Amendment. It’s the First Amendment.”

In the month since this was written, the newspapers have duly redacted and released nearly 2000 documents. Wikileaks has released exactly the same redacted documents on their own website --- and those documents only. There has been no indiscriminate release of documents.

The funny thing about all this is that Wikileaks decided to do this release this way for two reasons. The first was in response to criticism of their earlier releases of raw material which were feared to potentially put people in danger (something which has thankfully not come to pass.) But the other reason should be of intense interest to journalists (asking a lot, since they seem not to be interested in even the basic facts) because it shows that they are still necessary. Here's how Julian Assange explained their thinking on this:

Our initial idea, which never got… our initial idea was “look at all those people editing wikipedia”. Look at all the junk they are working on. Certainly if you give them a fresh classified document on the human rights atrocities in Fallujah, that the rest of the world has not seen before, you know it’s a secret document. Certainly all those people working on articles in art history, maths, and so on, and all those bloggers who are busy pontificating on the human rights disasters… who are complaining they can only respond to the NY times because they don’t have sources of their own. Surely those people will step forward, given fresh source material, and do something.

No, it’s all bullshit. All bullshit. In fact, people write about things in general, if it’s not part of their career, because they want to display their values to their peers who are already in the same group. Actually they don’t give a fuck about the material, that’s the reality. So we understood from very early on that we would have to at least give summaries of the material we were releasing. At least summaries to get people to pick it up, to get them to dig deeper. And if we didn’t have a summery to put the thing in context, it would just fall into the gutter. And in cases where the material is more complex especially military material which has lots of acronyms. It’s not enough to do a summery. You have to do an article, or liaise with other journalists on an exclusive or semi exclusive basis, to get them to extract it into semi understandable human readable form.

They originally thought there would be thousands of Marcy Wheelers combing through the documents and creating a narrative of events but found out that there were very few people of her caliber doing that kind of work and getting noticed. What they needed was professional journalism. And so they collaborated with newspapers and observed the rules they mutually agreed upon. Yet most journalists are still heaping them with scorn and accusing them of heinous crimes. It's almost as if they're afraid they might have to actually do something other than kow-tow to power so they're rejecting the most powerful validation of their purpose and necessity in the internet age.

This is the saddest day for journalism since their guileless acceptance of the WMD boogeyman and giddy cheerleading for the Iraq war. It turns out that journalism is important, but most of these "professional" practitioners of the field are not only failing to practice it, they are hostile to the idea that they should practice it. It's very revealing.