Covering the Wikileaks

I’m refraining from a long post dissecting the content of the Wikileaks documents because, from what I can tell so far, there’s not much in the content of the documents that wasn’t already known to people who follow foreign policy. As I wrote after the Afghanistan data-dump over the summer, the most interesting thing about Wikileaks is not what they leak, but how news organizations choose to cover them.

First, there was the question of whether Wikileaks is a journalistic enterprise whose work should be published in full, linked to extensively, and treated with respect by the dead-tree publications of the world, or whether it’s a source to be used–like all sources should be–skeptically and sparingly? I’m inclined to view it as the latter, and I think most of the news organizations have now come around to that view as well. That’s why you see less actual publication of documents on the news org websites this time than you saw with the war logs. [The Guardian editors explain that choice here.]

Second, as we come to understand Wikileaks as a new kind of source, news organizations are beginning to writeabout Wikileaks the organization, and Julian Assange is less-than-thrilled with some of the coverage. The New York Times, which has been more aggressive in its critique of Assange than some other major papers, found itself officially cut out of this document release. But the Times managed to get access to the documents in time for the embargo anyway…via the Guardian. And that–trans-Atlantic sharing of an exclusive sources between publications similar enough in ethos to be competitors–is news. It’s a meaningful shift towards a more collaborative model of journalism, and a shift I welcome.

Third, as we come to see Wikileaks as just a source, news organizations are having to decide whether to cover them at all, and–as we often do with delicate subject matter–how to balance the scoop against the risk to those implicated. I have very minimal sympathy with Wikileaks’ overall agenda, which seems increasingly to be about embarrassing the US government for the sake of it rather than to advance any particular cause, but I do think that news organizations have an obligation to cover these leaks in some fashion once they’ve occurred. They can pick and choose what to include on the basis of what’s really significant, and they can avoid reprinting the actual documents if they see a risk to someone’s life, but they can’t just choose to ignore the whole development.  That’s why I think it’s deplorable that two major news organizations–the Wall Street Journal and CNN–chose to turn down access to the documents altogether, because, in essence, they were afraid of being compromised. National security reporting is inevitably compromised and risky, and to run from that challenge is unjournalistic, and wrong.

Finally, to those who are still itching for something substantive on the documents, I’ve read two good analyses that I’ll pass on. First, Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian says the documents–in their non-scandal–show us a benign side of international politics, and that the US actually comes off better than the countries from which its emissaries are writing. Second, Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy hypothesizes that while the ease of the leak is likely to push the US government to tighten up its data security further (not to open itself more as some technorati would like), it may make intelligence failures more likely because it will be pushing us back to the barriers between agencies that plagued US agencies in the lead-up to 9/11. Somewhere, I’m sure, there’s a rational balance between information sharing and data security, but it’s going to take us years to find it.

Cross-posted from Foreign Exchange.