Bill Keller, the New York Times' executive editor, published an enormous article on the 26th of January about the New York Times' dealings with WikiLeaks. The article develops further the running story of WikiLeaks' relationship with its media partners, the subject of a Vanity Fair piece earlier in the month.
Much has been made of the negative light in which Julian Assange appears in the article. Wired's Kim Zetter published a digest piece, in which the more absurd claims of the piece are given particular attention but little critical treatment. The more colourful parts of the article were, predictably, grist to the celebrity gossip mill.
Perhaps the most important thing about the article, though, is that it is the first authoritative indication that the Times is willing to take a stand for media freedoms in the United States. During the height of official outrage over Cablegate late last year, when the use of the Espionage Act was being widely touted as a convenient way to perform an end run around First Amendment protections, it fell to the Washington Post's editorial section to issue a strong defense of freedom of speech. The Times, with its history of media partnership with WikiLeaks, remained conspicuously silent.
No longer. Keller now issues a strong (albeit heavily qualified) defense of those freedoms:
But while I do not regard Assange as a partner, and I would hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism, it is chilling to contemplate the possible government prosecution of WikiLeaks for making secrets public, let alone the passage of new laws to punish the dissemination of classified information, as some have advocated. Taking legal recourse against a government official who violates his trust by divulging secrets he is sworn to protect is one thing. But criminalizing the publication of such secrets by someone who has no official obligation seems to me to run up against the First Amendment and the best traditions of this country.
It is to be commended that Keller has given this sentiment editorial expression in the Times. It is sorely needed, that one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world, not to mention the United States, would come out with a strong defense of press freedom. Never mind that it could have been a lot more timely. Better late, and highly conditional, than never at all.
However, the context in which the defense is issued is highly suspect, and indicative of a wider problem with the Times attitude to WikiLeaks, and to the changes it represents. There is a real possibility it is issued purely in self-interest, not out of any fellow feeling with WikiLeaks. Much of the rest of the article takes a similarly defensive tone, apparently taking on the task of justifying the publication of the information, and assuaging the fears of a readership apparently extremely hostile to WikiLeaks. There is much of value about Keller's arguments in this direction.
I'm a little puzzled by the complaint that most of the embassy traffic we disclosed did not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. Ninety-nine percent of what we read or hear on the news does not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. News mostly advances by inches and feet, not in great leaps. The value of these documents - and I believe they have immense value - is not that they expose some deep, unsuspected perfidy in high places or that they upend your whole view of the world. For those who pay close attention to foreign policy, these documents provide texture, nuance and drama. They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold; they raise or lower your estimation of world leaders. For those who do not follow these subjects as closely, the stories are an opportunity to learn more. If a project like this makes readers pay attention, think harder, understand more clearly what is being done in their name, then we have performed a public service. And that does not count the impact of these revelations on the people most touched by them. WikiLeaks cables in which American diplomats recount the extravagant corruption of Tunisia's rulers helped fuel a popular uprising that has overthrown the government.
And herein lies the source of the wider problem with the article. The argument explicitly addresses itself to a readership for whom the Times' reputation has been damaged by its association with WikiLeaks. The editorial position is sophisticated, and, as has been The Times' approach over the last few months, ruthlessly politically correct. Keller is anxious to avoid any opprobrium for The Times - to appear blameless, impartial, professional. He therefore undertakes a political balancing act: defending the newsworthiness of the leaks, carefully outlining the rigour of the newspaper's harm minimization efforts and deferent collaboration with official Washington, and performing, much as John Burns did before him, a character assassination of Julian Assange.
The Times has been careful to quarantine WikiLeaks all along. During the Iraq War logs release, the John Burns piece released by the Times received plenty of criticism, most notably by Glenn Greenwald. But it is probable that the truth about Burn's piece is far mundane than that it was, as Greenwald claimed, a politically motivated hit-piece. It is instead merely the effort of a deeply conservative media outlet trying to have it both ways: on the one hand, staying on the inside of the biggest military intelligence story in history, and on the other hand, avoiding the charge of activism from those who demand of their newspapers a particular editorial slant, regardless of where the news leads it.
Burns' piece, and Keller's, are one side of a clear and calculated editorial policy on the part of the Times. Balance is more often in newspapers a calculated stance than an actual characteristic of writing. Here, the pretense of balance is used to ensure reputational hygiene. And so we get business-as-usual coverage of the leaks, and every salacious rumour available about the public face of WikiLeaks. The entire sequence of events is something that happened to the Times, rather than something in which it was inextricably involved. In the crudest way possible - and therefore the least likely to be missed - the New York Times signals to its readership that it isn't just WikiLeaks' mouthpiece.
Over the next few days, Schmitt huddled in a discreet office at The Guardian, sampling the trove of war dispatches and discussing the complexities of this project: how to organize and study such a voluminous cache of information; how to securely transport, store and share it; how journalists from three very different publications would work together without compromising their independence; and how we would all assure an appropriate distance from Julian Assange. We regarded Assange throughout as a source, not as a partner or collaborator, but he was a man who clearly had his own agenda.
It was already evident in John Burns' piece, but Keller's article only strengthens this reading. It would seem to betray a worrying lack of confidence that any newspaper would feel as if it has to apologize for reporting the news. But it would be to ignore the internal mechanics of the news industry - and therefore the reasons for its systemic failure to inform the public - if one were to overlook this aspect of it. The New York Times's primary product - just like that of any newspaper - is not information, but its own particular brand. This is a complex of editorial policies, sanctioned attitudes, political sympathies and grievances, a particular selection bias, a particular procedure for framing chosen stories and a wider set of social cues by which its readership demographics define their identities.
The New York Times recently started using an internet paywall system to sustain its ailing business model. This has made its content harder to access for those on the internet, and puts an onerous burden on consumer identification, requiring that readers feel so beholden to the Times' version of world news that they will sign up for a subscription so as to ensure unremediated access. It should come as no surprise, then, that the primary objective of Keller's article appears to be to caress his readers' sensitivities.
The sheer length of Keller's piece is insurance against its comprehensive rebuttal. It weighs in at just under 8000 words. It is far more than a mere compendium of Assange rumours, but a concerted and sophisticated colour piece, casting each of the events over the last seven months in the worst possible light. Assange is portrayed as "elusive, manipulative and volatile," "arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous." Middle class distaste is openly courted by the revelation of unnecessary details about his appearance, clothing, and body odour, the signs that this is somebody who just doesn't fit in.
He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in days.
Assange, then, deserves the same kind of contempt that Keller reserves for homeless people, and "bag ladies." A disheveled appearance and body odour (Assange travels relentlessly) is indicative of untrustworthiness and an unsavoury character. Keller loses no opportunities in the construction of his unflattering portrait. Faced with the journalists' rather embarrassing lack of technical knowledge of Microsoft Excel, Assange's helpful guidance is an opportunity to present him as "slipping naturally into the role of office geek."
Assuming it actually happened, a scene during which Assange skipped is presented as if it were redolent of some great character flaw, on the assumption that readers will share the Times' speechlessness that any "adult" would ever skip down the street. Instead, one is inclined to think of the speechless journalists as deeply repressed, humourless and behaviourally stunted.
Assange's sense of caution about U.S. government surveillance is treated dismissively - the delusional grandeur of the classically paranoid. Assange's caution is, however, well founded: WikiLeaks personnel, and associated persons, have been assassinated, are routinely harassed at airports, their electronic equipment illegally confiscated, and data from their online accounts was recently the subject of a Grand Jury subpoena.
Against this, we are given the impression that the New York Times - a journalistic organization that one would have assumed had at least a token commitment to protecting the anonymity of its sources - lacks the technological know-how to employ simple encrypted communications technology.
This past June, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, phoned me and asked, mysteriously, whether I had any idea how to arrange a secure communication. Not really, I confessed. The Times doesn't have encrypted phone lines, or a Cone of Silence.
We learn that, while the journalists involved in the WikiLeaks story busied themselves playing spy, they used their normal email accounts to work with the material. Despite the very real prospect of U.S. surveillance on Times journalists during the largest leak of military and diplomatic material in history, "inexplicable activity" on those email accounts to Keller immediately suggests Assange, and not the NSA.
An air of intrigue verging on paranoia permeated the project, perhaps understandably, given that we were dealing with a mass of classified material and a source who acted like a fugitive, changing crash pads, e-mail addresses and cellphones frequently. We used encrypted Web sites. Reporters exchanged notes via Skype, believing it to be somewhat less vulnerable to eavesdropping. On conference calls, we spoke in amateurish code. Assange was always "the source." The latest data drop was "the package." When I left New York for two weeks to visit bureaus in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where we assume that communications may be monitored, I was not to be copied on message traffic about the project. I never imagined that any of this would defeat a curious snoop from the National Security Agency or Pakistani intelligence. And I was never entirely sure whether that prospect made me more nervous than the cyberwiles of WikiLeaks itself. At a point when relations between the news organizations and WikiLeaks were rocky, at least three people associated with this project had inexplicable activity in their e-mail that suggested someone was hacking into their accounts.
The climax of Keller's anecdotal case against Assange, which served as the centrepiece also of the Vanity Fair piece, is the fallout over The Guardian's decision to break WikiLeaks' embargo over Cablegate, and to give the cables to the New York Times. He is portrayed here as tyrannical and impotent, issuing unreasonable demands, and unjustly incensed over the decision to cut him out of the loop. His anger is apparently without basis, other than the sense of disempowerment it causes. However, neither Bill Keller nor any other representative of the New York Times was at that meeting. An alternative account is provided by two of Der Spiegel's team, both of whom attended, wherein no party emerges entirely favourably.
As Der Spiegel relates the incident, The Guardian and The Times had rather duplicitously intended to break the media partnership, availing of a technicality to exempt The Guardian from the embargo. They were to go to press in early November with the Cablegate material and summarily cut WikiLeaks out of the operation. The principal media partners seemed on the cusp of reasserting a competitive approach to the news. Assange's anguish over the waywardness of the newspapers is made more understandable by his concerns for the long-term survival of WikiLeaks.
The mood became somewhat more relaxed after about an hour. Rusbridger opened a bottle of Chablis and asked what it would take for WikiLeaks to approve publication. "Anything less than a month would be practically fatal for us," said Assange. "Early 2011 would be optimal, and it depends on how you go about publishing." This time, Assange said, he didn't want to be in the front row. There was to be no press conference and no initial publication of the material by WikiLeaks. The media were to begin with their reports, while WikiLeaks would merely publish the corresponding diplomatic cables. "We can't handle the entire printing. It won't work this time. The material is too dramatic for that," he said. "We have to survive this leak."
In the previous leaks, the media organizations had been (and continue to be) only too happy to allow WikiLeaks to take the heat for the passage of the material to the public domain. The prospect of The New York Times and The Guardian self-interestedly ditching the media partnership to resume business as usual - while also running 'distancing' editorial content - will have threatened to deletigimize WikiLeaks, and jeopardize that organization's future. From reading Keller's piece, it seems likely that WikiLeaks' "fatal marginalization" is a prospect he would not regret. Assange, however, was apparently quite anxious that the operation be managed so as to share the heat among the stronger media partners. In light of this, his reported tenacity during that meeting is more understandable.
It is very difficult not to trace, in Keller's article, a decidedly pro status quo bias, wherein he finds WikiLeaks' effects on the news industry over the last year deeply unsettling. Besides his staunch defense of Ginger Thompson's rather vulgar character piece on Bradley Manning, he apparently holds a depreciative view of the possible motivations for whistleblowing, and regards a situation whereby whistleblowing becomes more common as "information anarchy."
If the official allegations are to be believed, most of WikiLeaks's great revelations came from a single anguished Army private - anguished enough to risk many years in prison. It's possible that the creation of online information brokers like WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks, a breakaway site announced in December by a former Assange colleague named Daniel Domscheit-Berg, will be a lure for whistle-blowers and malcontents who fear being caught consorting directly with a news organization like mine. But I suspect we have not reached a state of information anarchy. At least not yet.
We should also note with curiousity his remark about the difference of reception between American and European audiences:
The broader public reaction was mixed - more critical in the first days; more sympathetic as readers absorbed the articles and the sky did not fall; and more hostile to WikiLeaks in the U.S. than in Europe, where there is often a certain pleasure in seeing the last superpower taken down a peg.
We learn here that, in Keller's view, hostility to WikiLeaks is something only abandoned in Europe because of anti-American schadenfreude. This is a very telling remark. As a European who professes a great admiration for the foundational political values of the United States, it appears to me that reception of the leaks in Europe has been mainly positive for a different reason. They, so much more than the commercial press in whose hands we would otherwise lie, allow us to unpack precisely what it means for a country to be a "superpower."
A sordid history has emerged from WikiLeaks' work over the last year: of American diplomatic subversion of the impartiality of European courts, of the undue influence on European legislatures, of the attempts to propagandize our citizenry, of the complicity of our own governments in U.S. rendition. In my own country, the national government grovelled for an opportunity to provide for itself political cover for extraordinary renditions it believed the United States was conducting through one of its national airports. It does not excuse my government's cowardice, but the realpolitik, whose import drips from those cables, dictates that there was no political possibility that Ireland would ever think of taking a hard line with the U.S. government.
So while we learn from Keller that it is an unworthy sentiment, to consider it fortunate when "the last superpower" is "taken down a peg," that is not at all clear to me, when the full meaning of being "the last superpower" is apparently that there are few meaningful restraints on that power's actions, and when the full exercise of its influence entails the curtailment of the rightful influence of the people of Europe on its own governments. I would direct Keller to the Melian Dialogue on this point, but it would perhaps be more appropriate for him to meditate further on the Declaration of Independence, a very worthy document with which, I am sure, he is passingly familiar.
Besides this telling remark, the article tries hard to paint a New York Times that, while it might make mistakes, continually strives for media impartiality. Ironically, the collaborative process by which the paper deferentially sought government approval for publication is mined for every individual example of independent mindedness on the part of the paper. It is surprising, though, to see the NSA wiretap story, which the New York Times delayed for a full year on request by the Bush administration, touted as a triumph of media independence:
The tension between a newspaper's obligation to inform and the government's responsibility to protect is hardly new. At least until this year, nothing The Times did on my watch caused nearly so much agitation as two articles we published about tactics employed by the Bush administration after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The first, which was published in 2005 and won a Pulitzer Prize, revealed that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on domestic phone conversations and e-mail without the legal courtesy of a warrant. The other, published in 2006, described a vast Treasury Department program to screen international banking records. I have vivid memories of sitting in the Oval Office as President George W. Bush tried to persuade me and the paper's publisher to withhold the eavesdropping story, saying that if we published it, we should share the blame for the next terrorist attack. We were unconvinced by his argument and published the story, and the reaction from the government - and conservative commentators in particular - was vociferous.
Remarking a day after he revealed that the New York Times is considering setting up a mass document leaking dropbox, much like Al Jazeera's recently inaugurated Transparency Unit, Keller reflects on whether WikiLeaks has fundamentally transformed journalism. He believes that any claims that WikiLeaks has catalyzed a change are dubious.
In the context in which it comes, this, and all the rest, ought to surprise no one. As a commercial entity with a clear interest in continued monopoly on the market for keeping the public informed, institutional resentment for WikiLeaks, resistance to the change it brings with it, and attempts both in print and in action to 'fatally marginalize' it are entirely to be expected. If Assange is to be accused of any naivety, it is in his expectation that he could expect anything but ruthless and unprincipled self interest from The New York Times.