Monday, October 20, 2014
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Rules of engagement

WikiLeaks tries to piggyback on the credibility of newspapers

Rules of engagement

An expanded version of my Sunday print column:

You may not have noticed, but print journalism was triumphant during the last week of July.

I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.

The sentence doesn't jibe with the conventional wisdom that newspapers today are as out of fashion as the Lucky Strikes in Don Draper's shirt pocket on Mad Men. And I'm certainly wise to the conventional wisdom. I recently saw a movie called State of Play, and it was sobering to see that Russell Crowe couldn't function as a crusading print reporter without the help of a doe-eyed blogger young enough to be his daughter. I was relieved, at least, that she didn't counsel him about "hyperlink maximization" or "social media utilization," because I wouldn't have had a clue what she was talking about.

That said, newspapers - also known as "the legacy media" and "the dead trees" - definitely proved their worth and mettle last week. I'm referring to the 92,000 leaked U.S. military battlefield records that detailed the miseries we've encountered in Afghanistan. Somebody on the inside sent those documents to WikiLeaks, the website that thrives on exposing secrets worldwide (Swiss bank accounts, confidential Scientology manuals, Kenyan government corruption records, you name it), but what's most noteworthy is what WikiLeaks decided to do with the documents.

In June, WikiLeaks could have simply posted all that raw military data online, straight to your laptop. But that's not how WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange saw the state of play. He instead decided to share most of his material - the stuff that, in his estimation, would not put lives in danger - with three key western newspapers: The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. All three duly produced sizable news packages within the past week. Assange wanted the papers to translate the military jargon for the lay reader. They did. He wanted the papers to vet, analyze, and contextualize the material. They did.

In other words, WikiLeaks - which is supposedly in the vanguard of the new media - clearly sought to piggyback on the legitimacy and credibility of the old media. With good reason.
 
Media critic and academician Jay Rosen contended on his Pressthink blog the other day that WikiLeaks is "the world's first stateless news organization." That doesn't sound quite right, especially since even Assange's close associates don't see WikiLeaks that way. (Ron Gonggrijp recently told The New Yorker: "We are not the press.") In the new information ecosystem, WikiLeaks is actually more like a broker, a midway wholesaler. As an advocacy group for sources, it needs help reaching the retail news customer.

WikiLeaks can certainly post online whatever leaked goodies it receives, as it has done a number of times. But that kind of self-publication has its limits. Online readers can't always decipher raw documents on their own, much less divine their true meaning. Just check out the verbiage in those Afghanistan battlefield reports, and see if you get the drift. This is why Assange sought some partners in the old media - because that's where you find seasoned full-time journalists who know how to verify information, make sense of it, and explain it.

So it's glib and premature to declare (as many do) that the Internet is supplanting newspapers. Even though most papers lack the resources they once enjoyed in the days of yore, the best papers still have far more bodies and expertise than the web news pioneers. Indeed, critics of the WikiLeaks war trove have been contending that most of the material is old news - precisely because salaried war correspondents from the dead-tree media have already written and reported at length about civilian casualties and Pakistani intelligence perfidy.

It's probably more accurate to suggest that old and new media are jointly rewriting the rules of engagement, ad hoc and on the fly. There are many fruitful ways to partner; for instance, The Washington Post's July series on the burgeoning anti-terrorism bureaucracy paired a Pulitzer Prize-winning print reporter with a data junkie who writes a national security blog (shades of the State of Play movie). NPR stations are partnering on projects with online news startups in Austin, St. Louis, and San Diego.

The key flaw in the WikiLeaks deal - and a demonstration of how the new rules may favor the new media - is that WikiLeaks set the terms. Assange gave the three newspapers a deadline, a mere month to vet the shared material. When the month was up, he intended to post the stuff on his site (Which he did.) In his dealings with the papers, he refused to identify the leaker or to characterize the leaker's motivation. Nor did he share or characterize the roughly 15,000 documents he had decided to hold back.

So the papers essentially had to work in the dark - reporting only the material they were able to verify, setting aside whatever questions and concerns they may have entertained about the leaker, and probably pining for the days when Bob Woodward at least knew the identity and motivations of the guy who met him in parking garages.

(Then there's the issue of Assange's motivations. He told Der Spiegel last week that he seeks to "change our perspective on not only the war in Afghanistan, but on all modern wars" by showing "the everyday brutality and squalor of war." He told The Guardian that "the real story is that it's war...the continuing deaths of civilians, children and soldiers." I happen to believe that the published war logs are valuable additions to the public record about Afghanistan - but Assange himself still strikes me as overly naive. All wars are marred by brutality and squalor and civilian death; read any contemporary book about the American experience in World War II - a just war, by any conceivable measure - and you'll be aghast at the waste of human life. In the last week of that war, for instance, British planes mistakenly sunk two noncombatant ships, killing more than 6000 civilians. It's morally wrong to kill civilians, but Assange appears to make no distinction between just and unjust wars. I'm just saying. But I digress.)

Regardless of whether the working arrangement on this Afghanistan story heralds a power shift from old media to new media, or whether Assange's desire for old media cred is proof that print is still alive (which is how I read it), let's not forget that the average reader ultimately decides what is important and what is not. And it's clear that this rare partnering venture, which was intended as a big media splash, has produced barely a ripple. How come?

The shorthand is simple: America's longest war is a confusing mess, and the average reader - who is far more fixated on joblessness - knew that already. The polls rank the war as a low public priority, and not even a global website, working in cahoots with credible old-media stalwarts, can push the war any higher. Just like all the ink-stained wretches who have learned over time that it's tough to change the world, the WikiLeaks founder is learning this now. So let's Tweet the guy:

Dude. Welcome to the club.

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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