Arthur Brisbane, Public Editor of the New York Times, has a good explanation for why his newspaper participated in leaking the embassy cables this week. Basically, and despite my opposition to the leaks, I agree with this: the leaks are newsworthy, and the Times would have been negligent to ignore them. Brisbane then lists why he thinks these are newsworthy:
- Iran is pursuing WMD (which we knew)
- North Korea is slowly spiraling out of control (which the recent artillery exchange already told us if we bothered to pay attention)
- Pakistan is unstable and might not be able to secure its nukes (which we knew)
- Nicolas Sarkozy is a spoiled brat (duh, he’s French)
- Ramazn Kadyroz is a sex-crazed beast (well, I knew that but that’s another story)
And blah blah blah secrecy and they feel bad about associating themselves with a dripping syphilitic dick like Julian Assange. I get it, you’re conflicted but can’t ignore the gossip. But Brisbane ended his column in a very peculiar way:
What if The New York Times in 1964 had possessed a document showing that L.B.J.’s intent to strike against North Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident was based on false information? Should it have published the material?
What if The Times had possessed documentary evidence showing that the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were unfounded? Should it have published the material?
These questions, which need only be posed rhetorically, supply an answer to the larger question: Would you as a reader rather have the information yourself or trust someone else to hang on to it for you?
This is my biggest problem with the whole journalistic pursuit to Wikileaks. There is nothing, in any single release including Collateral Murder, that approaches the scale of the Gulf of Tonkin. Despite solemn promises to the contrary, none of the war logs from Iraq or Afghanistan contain evidence of new war crimes, covered up atrocities, or faked attacks used to justify a decade-long war. Brisbane’s analogy is based on the assumption that the leaks are in some way exposing wrong-doing. They’re not (not even the diplomat spy non-scandal).
But that second example is even more questionable. The New York Times ran Judy Miller’s pieces specifically alleging that Bush’s claim of Iraqi WMD were true. They are materially complicit in the push to war carrying credibility. Hell, I fell for that, thinking that if even the New York Times thinks this is a real thing then it probably is. Judy Miller made up stories to help the Bush administration agitate for war. She fabricated stories, invented quotes, and willingly served as a pawn for the administration to invent a case for a brutal war.
Which brings us to the last point. The New York Times thinks it is reliable on these issues. They say we cannot allow other people to “hang on to” this information, even while they say they redact information they think will be too damaging according to an opaque process (when a piece of information crosses from embarrassing to outright damaging is unclear, for example, and relies on the judgment of those same editors who thought Judy Miller was super awesome and honest).
And that’s the fundamental hypocrisy of Brisbane’s piece. He is not advocating openness and transparency: he is advocating we transfer custody of sensitive, and in many cases damaging, secrets from the government to the media. Neither organization should inspire confidence: the government and the media are symbiotic these days, and questioning authority has become so rare as to win awards for its sheer novelty. The New York Times in particular has an unflattering record in this regard, at least when it comes to acting as a spokesman for the government (see, especially: Dexter Filkins). Many of their reporters do not, obviously—people like CJ Chivers, Carlotta Gall, and John Burns have, I think, sterling reputations as journalists. But the Times is not perfect, just as the U.S. government is not perfect.
So if the NYT has acted as a proxy for the government, and is redacting information anyway, why do we need a Wikileaks in the first place? There’s no reason most of these cables, which are unclassified, couldn’t be released after a FOIA review, or after the normal declassification process in 20 years. As I write in my piece for PBS this week, the Wikileaks process actually hurts the cause of transparency. And by behaving so hypocritically, the New York Times is assisting in the death of it, even while complaining that everything they want to know is secret.
Classy to the end, I suppose.