Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
JULY 27, 2010 3:33PM

Wikileaks release shows the value of journalism

Rate: 8 Flag
The basic round-up two days after the Wikileaks release shows a couple of predictable camps: Camp Wikileaks, which declares the release both brilliant, patriotic, and a necessary step toward the transparency that will eventually usher Americans out of Afghanistan; Camp Fine, Whatever, which calls the reports not surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention; and Camp You’re a Traitor, which seems to include the White House and focuses mostly on the fact that the information leaked was classified and therefore not legally available for publication.

Most of the journalists I’ve read fall into Camp FW. They seem surprised only by the attention the document release is getting, because the information is pretty much an exact match to what they’ve been reporting for the last several years. I think there’s more at work here than just boredom over some raw reports, though. I think, rightly, that journalists see the release of these documents into the public as a kind of threat to their very profession.

It is, and it isn’t. Just as when a politician runs around the media to speak directly to the people, the release of raw documents can be both boon and bane for those on the receiving end. Journalists — people who seek, process, and analyze information for a living — are a necessary component to efficient information consumption. This is never more evident than when an enormous amount of information is available. Put more bluntly: not everyone has 10 hours a day to devote to reading Significant Event reports from Afghanistan in order to make up his or her mind about what, exactly, this means. So journalists — call them war correspondents, foreign bureau reporters, crazy nut-jobs, whatever — are employed to take this material, contextualize it, and report it digestibly to the public at large. Some of them do it well, some of them don’t; the large responsibility of the wants-to-be-informed reader is to figure out who can be trusted.

Bloggers do the exact same thing every single day. We repackage and summarize information gleaned from documents, studies, and other writers, often with the knowledge that those who read our work won’t click on the handy links to check out the primary source. It is the service that journalism is supposed to provide.

So it’s a little disingenuous of bloggers to complain and allege that journalists are conspiring to keep the public away from, or at least in doubt of the value of, these raw documents. Siun at FDL today:

It’s fascinating to watch the so-called “progressive” COIN fans circle the wagons over the Wikileaks release of over 90,000 files from Afghanistan. Everywhere you look – from Joshua Foust to our very own Attackerman’s selection of Adam Weinstein’s post in Mother Jones as the “winner” of “the WikiLeaks commentary contest” – you’ll find concerned military journos assuring us that there’s really nothing there, no need to bother our pretty little heads trying to read or understand these files. As Weinstein writes: “But in truth, there’s not much there. I know, because I’ve seen many of these reports before—at least, thousands of similar ones from Iraq, when I was a contractor there last year.”

I’ve read Adam Weinstein’s piece, Joshua Frost’s piece, and the Andrew Exum piece that’s specifically attacked later in Siun’s post. Each piece is at most two clicks away from the primary source that she claims they’re trying to discourage readers from looking at. On the contrary, I think these guys are mostly saying something very reasonable: read these, but understand they’re a single source. Understand they’re raw and can be unreliable. They don’t paint a bigger picture of the war; they fill in some detail in an already well-sketched area of the existing portrait.

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Nicely executed bit of meta reporting. Rated
I would think religion is a bigger threat to journalists. They are preaching different things.
I just read Weinstein. Bravo to him for being a hardened, document-reading war correspondent. I don't know how significant this document dump is. If this triggers a larger discussion (oh hell, any discussion) as to our purpose in Afghanistan, Wikileaks will have done a service.
What is unquestioned here is that WikiLeaks is changing the face of journalism and intelligence gathering forever.

I'm in the Camp WikiLeaks on this matter, and have been essentially saying what you said in your closing line about this: it's a single source so anyone putting "fact" and "proof" on this is an idiot, but anyone dismissing it outright is just doing a rush to judgment like we saw in the recent Sherrod incident.
Saturn and Stim,

Thanks for reading through my post and giving it a fair shake. Your analysis is spot-on.

Not sure why/how the dichotomy between pro-military and pro-WikiLeaks popped up the way it did in the blogosphere; I'm pro-both and anti-both. But a lot of fellow progressives are raking me across the coals for trying to thread that needle. They read the first two graphs of my story, decided I was dismissive of WL, and dismissed the "dismissal." Worse, they accuse me of discouraging people from reading the leaks; I have no idea where that charge even comes from.

Random observation: Most of the bloggers deriding folks like me for "playing media gatekeeper" aren't diving into the WL reports themselves; they're running with the work of other MSM organizations, like the NYT and Guardian. (See http://firedoglake.com/2010/07/27/wikileaks-too-confusing-for-citizens/)

Which is cool and all - those orgs are doing amazing work. It just seems a little disingenuous to idolize Julian Assange, or to parrot Jay Rosen, and to trumpet open-source, democratized data, when one apparently lacks the inclination or training to read the primary sources.

Last thing - as usual, we're almost a year behind the Brits. My one and only Open Salon piece dealt with their national conversation on Afghanistan. (http://open.salon.com/blog/adamweinstein/2009/11/10/wars_wounds_has_obama_lost_the_uk_and_afghanistan)

Anyway, cheers.
Adam, I'm with you in being pro-both and anti-both, as you say. I'm very surprised by how black-and-white the divisions seem to be, so far, on what should be an incredibly nuanced issue. I do hope a national discussion comes from this, but I hope it's a discussion not based upon whether the leaks themselves were bad or true but about whether our Afghanistan policy is worth pursuing or changing.

Thanks for the comment.
Journalists and those who work for the U.S. government are the ones who steer the conversation and craft the narrative on the Afghanistan war. The conversation and narrative has typically not involved attention to civilian deaths, military coverups, possible war crimes committed, media paying Afghanistan journalists to write "good" stories, bringing the war to an end, etc. It has been about the necessity of escalation, the need to take on the evil Taliban, the idea that Afghanistan is the "good war," etc.

I think Wikileaks is a threat because it removes the filter. If people actually have access to raw information from the military from what has really been happening and share it through activist organizations, nonprofits or other organizations that are not part of the White House press corps and are not working for the government, it's possible to make conclusions that are unsettling to those who feel the Afghanistan War must go on.

Good post. And, it's good to see Adam Weinstein commenting on the attention he's been receiving. I am not sure what's so disingenuous about valuing the work of Julian Assange and others with Wikileaks and I also don't disagree with the media criticism of Jay Rosen. I think your post helps bring forth the nuance of Weinstein has been trying to say.

Fine Whatever

I don’t see why you’re surprised that the journalists are downplaying this; after all they’re working for the same multi-national corporations that lead us into war and if they want job security they have to do their bosses bidding.
It turns out there might be an issue of problematic execution of what is indeed fine journalism in the purest sense on behalf of WikiLeaks: http://tinyurl.com/2a4xcvn.

Then again, had crimes not been whitewashed there would be no need for leaks, and if the US was not conducting a massive manhunt after Julian Assange, he would probably have done a better job redacting.

That being said, it would have been much preferable to delay publication for another few months and not endanger informants.
One would hope that the WikiLeaks documents mirror the effect of the Pentagon Papers and increase the outcry in the public to end the war now.

It seems that professional journalists are quick to dismiss this issue while average citizens seem to finally be getting a better few of what really is going on in Afghanistan.
I'm with Kevin. I wouldn't be as kind to the post though. It's rather dense. Not rated.
the process of getting data to the public without government editing is important, perhaps more important than this particular dump.

that is why the government is 'excited' about a not very exciting event: they are worried about the existence of an uncontrolled info path. the next one might be really embarrassing...