What The NY Times Got Right About Wikileaks

by Conor Friedersdorf

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, took to the Sunday magazine this week to tell the story of his newspaper's dealings with Wikileaks. It's partly a defense of his news organization – and it includes some bragging too. In fact, I've seldom seen a single essay so effective in making the case for a publication's value.

Let's give Keller's essay a close read, because it provides specific examples that show why the NYT is an important institution worth keeping around, even in the Internet age, and whatever one thinks of its op-ed columnists, its center-left sensibility, or its editorials.

To begin, a description of the impressive team that did its best to responsibly handle the 92,000 documents it was given:

Guided by reporters with extensive experience in the field, we redacted the names of ordinary citizens, local officials, activists, academics and others who had spoken to American soldiers or diplomats. We edited out any details that might reveal ongoing intelligence-gathering operations, military tactics or locations of material that could be used to fashion terrorist weapons.

Three reporters with considerable experience of handling military secrets Eric Schmitt, Michael Gordon and C. J. Chivers went over the documents we considered posting. Chivers, an ex-Marine who has reported for us from several battlefields, brought a practiced eye and cautious judgment to the business of redaction. If a dispatch noted that Aircraft A left Location B at a certain time and arrived at Location C at a certain time, Chivers edited it out on the off chance that this could teach enemy forces something useful about the capabilities of that aircraft.

Next an interesting bit about differences in coverage at other newspapers:

If anyone doubted that the three publications operated independently, the articles we posted that day made it clear that we followed our separate muses. The Guardian, which is an openly left-leaning newspaper, used the first War Logs to emphasize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, claiming the documents disclosed that coalition forces killed “hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents,” underscoring the cost of what the paper called a “failing war.”

Our reporters studied the same material but determined that all the major episodes of civilian deaths we found in the War Logs had been reported in The Times, many of them on the front page. (In fact, two of our journalists, Stephen Farrell and Sultan Munadi, were kidnapped by the Taliban while investigating one major episode near Kunduz. Munadi was killed during an ensuing rescue by British paratroopers.) The civilian deaths that had not been previously reported came in ones and twos and did not add up to anywhere near “hundreds.” Moreover, since several were either duplicated or missing from the reports, we concluded that an overall tally would be little better than a guess.

For our purposes, this is noteworthy insofar as it shows an earnest effort to avoid sensationalism when it wasn't warranted by facts, and institutional memory – via previously reported stories and experienced personel – to make an informed judgment.

This next passage concerns power dynamics:

Because of the range of the material and the very nature of diplomacy, the embassy cables were bound to be more explosive than the War Logs. Dean Baquet, our Washington bureau chief, gave the White House an early warning on Nov. 19. The following Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, Baquet and two colleagues were invited to a windowless room at the State Department, where they encountered an unsmiling crowd. Representatives from the White House, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency, the F.B.I. and the Pentagon gathered around a conference table. Others, who never identified themselves, lined the walls. A solitary note-taker tapped away on a computer.

The meeting was off the record, but it is fair to say the mood was tense. Scott Shane, one reporter who participated in the meeting, described “an undertone of suppressed outrage and frustration.”

Suffice it to say that a journalist working for an organization without the institutional clout and attorney power of the New York Times (let alone a freelancer or blogger) would have a much more difficult time sitting before all those government officials without being intimidated. Whatever you think of this story in particular, it's a good thing generally to have a press that can hold its own when the government comes calling.

Finally, a passage that gets things just right:

Although it is our aim to be impartial in our presentation of the news, our attitude toward these issues is far from indifferent. The journalists at The Times have a large and personal stake in the country’s security. We live and work in a city that has been tragically marked as a favorite terrorist target, and in the wake of 9/11 our journalists plunged into the ruins to tell the story of what happened here. Moreover, The Times has nine staff correspondents assigned to the two wars still being waged in the wake of that attack, plus a rotating cast of photographers, visiting writers and scores of local stringers and support staff. They work in this high-risk environment because, while there are many places you can go for opinions about the war, there are few places and fewer by the day where you can go to find honest, on-the-scene reporting about what is happening. We take extraordinary precautions to keep them safe, but we have had two of our Iraqi journalists murdered for doing their jobs. We have had four journalists held hostage by the Taliban two of them for seven months. We had one Afghan journalist killed in a rescue attempt. Last October, while I was in Kabul, we got word that a photographer embedded for us with troops near Kandahar stepped on an improvised mine and lost both his legs.

We are invested in the struggle against murderous extremism in another sense. The virulent hatred espoused by terrorists, judging by their literature, is directed not just against our people and our buildings but also at our values and at our faith in the self-government of an informed electorate. If the freedom of the press makes some Americans uneasy, it is anathema to the ideologists of terror.

So we have no doubts about where our sympathies lie in this clash of values. And yet we cannot let those sympathies transform us into propagandists, even for a system we respect.

This description – and it seems fair and accurate to me – puts the Times in a much different light than is cast by some of its critics, who'd have us believe that the newspaper, which in many ways is establishmentarian (to a fault on occassion), is actually a trangressive, post-national entity with a knee-jerk tenency to blame America first.

I submit that in the matter of Wikileaks, the American people were a lot better off for the involvement of The New York Times than we would've been had the documents been dumped on the Internet without the newspaper's involvement – and that, even if you disagree with some of the decisons they made, which is reasonable enough, their approach to this matter was cogent and defensible.