What Afghan Wikileaks Doc Dump Reveals About the Media

The good and the bad

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The tens of thousands of military intelligence documents pertaining to the Afghan war released by Wikileaks have inspired sweeping debates over the meaning of the leaks and the status of the struggling, nearly ten-year war. But the leaks are also inspiring an interesting debate on the nature of the media today. What role are WikiLeaks and the more traditional media playing?

  • Big Revelations vs. Small Reveals  Wired's Spencer Ackerman writes, "Adds a former intelligence contractor who used to produce intelligence summaries, 'There will be a lot of interesting tidbits but nothing earthshaking.' And it’s those 'interesting tidbits' that makes the WikiLeaks trove significant. There’s a bias in journalism toward believing that what’s secret is inherently a hive of hidden truth. That operating principle animates reporters’ practice of breaking down governmental secrecy. But it can also create a misleading expectation that leaks represent huge new revelations. And when those revelations don’t manifest, it creates an expectation that the trove is neither useful nor significant. In this case, that would be a mistake."
  • WikiLeaks, Filling Media Vacuum, Endangers Lives  Central Asia analyst Joshua Foust tweets that many officials and aid workers, because they are named in the leaks reports as cooperating with the U.S., may now be facing mortal danger from the Taliban. Blogger Sean Paul Kelley reacts, "It is simply unconscionable that these names were not redacted. There is no excuse for it. I'm appalled, actually. These people are very, very much at risk of death now. ... Look, on balance, I like what Assange is doing, but let's not fool ourselves in thinking that everything Wikileaks, or Assange does is an unadulterated public good. It's not. And it's a shame that we have to rely on a brazen self-promoter like Assange to fill the vacuum the Versailles media has created."
  • Disconnect Between Officials and Public  National security blogger Michael Cohen acknowledges that many analysts are unsurprised by such reports as the rogue Pakistani support for the Taliban, which has been well reported for years. But this is precisely the problem, as U.S. officials have refused to publicly address such issues. "The disconnect between these words and the reality in Afghanistan has been well-known among many in the foreign policy establishment for some time. ... But what it tells us about the incomplete information being fed to the American people about the war being fought in their name - and the arrogance of official Washington in pooh-poohing these revelations - well that's something else altogether."
  • Beginning of Open-Source Journalism  The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal writes, "While the impact of the documents and newspaper reportage on the war in Afghanistan will take a while to suss out, the publication of these documents will be seen as a milestone in the new news ecosystem. ... In the new asymmetrical journalism, it's not clear who is on what side or what the rules of engagement actually are. But the reason Wikileaks may have just changed the media is that we found out that it doesn't really matter. Their data is good, and that's what counts."
  • Leaks Have Always Driven Journalism  Media critic Jay Rosen explains, "Few people realize how important leaking has been to the rise of the political press since the mid-18th century. Leaks were actually 'present at the creation' of political reporting. ... internal struggles for power remain to this day a major trigger for leaks. Conscience, of course, is a different trigger. Whistleblowers can be of either type: calculating advantage-seekers, or men and women with a troubled conscience. We don’t know which type provided the logs to Wikileaks. What we do know is that a centuries-old dynamic is now empowering new media, just as it once empowered the ink-on-paper press."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.