2011-01-06 Observations on Israel Shamir in Counterpunch: Julian Assange's Deal With the Devil

Israel Shamir, the subject of some controversy in a recent Guardian piece has published an interesting article at Counterpunch, which not only tries to address many of the concerns raised in the Guardian, but takes the battle to the Guardian, and takes up the cause of Wikileaks quite forcefully.

The piece is very interesting, for a number of reasons. It provides new developments in the Shamir-Wikileaks story. Shamir claims to have no official or professional relationship with Wikileaks. He also points out a pre-publication page on Amazon that may or may not indicate that the Guardian is preparing a book on Wikileaks called "The Rise and Fall of Wikileaks." Shamir alleges that the Guardian is engaged in a smear campaign against Assange in anticipation of this "fall."

Certainly, over the last week, we at WL Central have had the opportunity to catch The Guardian falling short of what one might expect of an exemplary journalistic publication. Nick Davies was seen to propagate a straightforward falsehood when he alleged that Julian Assange had been using the Wikileaks Twitter account to smear the alleged victims of his alleged crimes. And on Monday the Guardian published an article by James Richardson which accused Wikileaks of potentially fatal negligence in the clearance for publication of a cable from Harare, when it was in fact the Guardian that cleared this cable.

There is certainly more to this story, but perhaps the most interesting thing about Shamir's piece is the analytic he offers. The article offers some very intriguing, and I would say accurate, analysis of the structural limitations of the media, and its effects on a story of the magnitude of Cablegate.

Shamir invokes this analysis to explain the recent apparent cooling of relations between the Guardian and Wikileaks. But what he says raises some interesting broader questions about whether the world actually has an information infrastructure adequate to something like Cablegate. Shamir's criticism of the mainstream media's approach to Cablegate is colourful, but seductive:

So here we are: in order to get valuable data to the people, Julian Assange had to make a deal with the devil: the mainstream media. It was most natural for him to deal with the liberal flank of the mainstream, for the hardliners would not even touch it. But since the liberal papers are also embedded, they freely distort the cables by attaching misleading headlines and misquoting from the text.

What arises out of Shamir's analysis is that the information biases at work in something like the mainstream media hamstring the accuracy of any dissemination of information through any such infrastructure. The information resource of Cablegate is vast. Newspapers, journalists, employ a selection bias towards "newsworthy" material. Even credible or careful analysis by a journalist is often swept to the side by an editorial headline which primes a reader to employ an interpretive bias while reading.

These US State Department cables are double-edged swords. They are full of rumors, trial balloons, and hopeful thinking. Worse, the newspaper headlines often declare that Wikileaks is the source of the rumor, and leave it to the discerning reader to discover that an embassy staffer was the real source of the story. Readers often do not understand that headlines are little more than come-ons, and reflect a very loose interpretation of the article content. They tend to believe the misleading headline that says, “Wikileaks: Iran prepares nuclear weapons” or, “Wikileaks: all Arabs want the US to destroy Iran”. Wikileaks never said it! It was the Guardian and the NY Times that said it, and loudly. A corrected headline would look like this:

"Wikileaks reveals that US diplomats spread unsubstantiated rumours on the Iran nuclear program in order to ingratiate themselves with the State Department"

But you will not live long enough to see this headline. Such is the price for using mainstream media: they will eventually poison the purest source.

Media organizations are overwhelmed by Cablegate. Because of the sheer quantity of information, Cablegate has become a maelstrom of sensational headlines. Readers rely on the selection efforts of the media. Eventually, the headlines and editorial emphases occlude the actual content of the cables, and their impact is muted, their meaning distorted. We are inclined towards a broad analogy with data encoding technology. An extremely large amount of high resolution data is given, but the only available technique for transmitting it involves lossy compression. The result is a huge loss in potentially valuable data. As the stories disseminate, generation loss occurs.

Shamir in fact describes the breakdown of the traditional media in its attempts to accurately report on a deluge of information many times more vast than it was ever built to accommodate. And this is quite a valuable insight. One of the most fascinating stories of the last month (and in fact, the last year of Wikileaks activity) has been the sheer incompetence of the media, faced with a story like this. Glenn Greenwald documents how the media voraciously passes on unkillable falsehoods. At a certain point, mendacity ceases to be a credible explanation. We revert to the stark inadequacy of existing media structures. Our media has been breaking under the strain of too much news, and of too pure a grade of news.

It raises the question, to what extent could the world ever fully comprehend the magnitude of the information contained in Cablegate, or indeed, any of Wikileaks' previous "megaleaks?" Much of the coverage has explored the ethics of leaking, but we have had little mention of the idea that there is an information threshold, above which any leak will diminish in impact proportional to its magnitude. Is it possible to have a media apparatus that transmits news with the ideal fidelity? Is our best possible media analogous only to some lossy compression technique? And what of citizen journalist efforts, such as CrowdLeaks or CableWiki?

One of Shamir's final comments is timely. Assange has given us reason to believe, in the past, that theory on the transmission of information such as this plays a strong role in the design of Wikileaks. It seems unlikely that the present performance of the mainstream media will escape someone with these interests and concerns.

However, I would rather place my bet on Assange. He is smart, and he has a mind of a first-class chess player. He has many surprises up his sleeve. It is possible that the Guardian will have to rename their book The Rise and Rise of Wikileaks.

In the end, the ones at the

In the end, the ones at the Guardian proved they were just journos like all others. Disappointing how they would betray anyone out of jealousy.

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