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.