WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has figured out that on the Internet, being homeless means you don’t have to play by anybody’s rules.
This week’s disclosure of the Afghanistan war logs shows how WikiLeaks has emerged as a new type of media player, an information broker that collects secrets and negotiates how they will be revealed.
It has cracked open governments and corporations without apparent repercussions because it has no headquarters, no printing press or transmission tower, no physical address. It’s just a confederation of skilled volunteers and Web servers. In that sense, WikiLeaks is of the Internet.
In inserting itself between source and publisher, WikiLeaks has shifted power away from the monoliths that once determined what is news and toward the people who, before the Web, would have been stopped in the newspaper lobby before they could see a reporter.
WikiLeaks allowed The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel access to the Afghanistan war logs a month early as long as they kept quiet until WikiLeaks published them on its site. In striking that bargain, those news organizations found themselves not as gatekeepers of information, but as guests with VIP access.
And yet WikiLeaks needed these titans of old media. It needed their reporting, their reach, their distribution networks, their reputation.
The new role of the “source advocate”
WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart operate in the wide, middle ground between sources and publishers, and they play both sides. In providing new information related to a story of public interest, they act as sources. And in giving voice to sources and information that would otherwise be lost among the chatter, they function like publishers.
“The source is no longer dependent on finding a journalist who may or may not do something good with his document,” Assange said in a New Yorker profile earlier this year, published after WikiLeaks released an edited video of a U.S. helicopter killing a Reuters photographer and driver in Iraq. (The site also posted the full, unedited video.)
Breitbart and Assange chose different methods these past two weeks (and they have vastly different goals), but each sought to influence traditional media, not replace it. Breitbart published the Shirley Sherrod video himself and hoped the media would follow along; WikiLeaks decided to give a few outlets advance access to the “Afghan War Diary,” as WikiLeaks calls it, in the hopes that their coverage would establish this as a major story.
The power of self-publication isn’t quite enough. To achieve the most impact, to get people to pay attention to this story, WikiLeaks needed to broker a deal with traditional media.
Exchanging information and credibility
For WikiLeaks, the worst outcome of leaking the Afghan war logs wouldn’t be government prosecution. It would be silence.
The New Yorker article describes how in 2007 Assange and his cohorts published U.S. military purchasing records for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even building a searchable database. According to The New Yorker’s Raffi Khatchadourian, “Assange hoped that journalists would pore through it, but barely any did. ‘I am so angry,’ he said.”
Assange has also experimented unsuccessfully with auctioning off access to documents, according to The New Yorker.
This time, WikiLeaks opted for an old tool: the embargo. In a 2009 Computerworld article, Assange described how scarcity is key to getting media attention:
In creating scarcity with the war logs, Assange played to the competitive instincts of legacy media and controlled the story, at least at the outset. For the first day or so, those three newspapers owned the story, forcing their competitors to scramble. (When they caught up, not all thought the war logs measured up to the hype.)
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told me in an e-mail that simply posting the thousands of military logs on WikiLeaks’ site “would probably have been messier, as news outlets and bloggers and others scrambled to find interesting nuggets in an ocean of complicated, jargonized documents.
“The month that The Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel had to sort, translate, verify and analyze,” Keller said, “meant the Afghanistan documents were rendered useful for readers.”
And what did WikiLeaks gain? Credibility. As these venerable news organizations verified and analyzed the documents, they legitimized them. Anyone can publish to the Web, but not with the impact of the Times, The Guardian or Der Spiegel. Do I trust WikiLeaks? Maybe not. But if the Times trusts them, perhaps I do.
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, described the pros and cons of self-publishing in a Times story published after WikiLeaks posted the video of the helicopter video. Though there’s something enticing about being independent, he said, “I don’t think it would have had the same impact, then or now, as having it in The Times.”
Increasingly complex relationship between source and journalist
In handing these news orgs the raw material, WikiLeaks obviously made their job easier. But with WikiLeaks standing between them and the primary source, the journalists’ work was harder, too.
There’s a limit to what the journalists could verify. And though they could check what was in the documents, they don’t know what was missing — documents that could have provided exculpatory evidence or presented a more mixed picture.
“Deep Throat had an agenda. Ellsberg had an agenda,” Keller told me by e-mail. “That doesn’t invalidate the information they provide us. If we refused to work with sources whose motivations we didn’t share, a lot of important stories would go untold.
“The critical thing is what we do with the material — check its authenticity, draw our own conclusions from it, put it in context, and lay it all out for readers on our terms, not the source’s terms.” (Indeed, CJR noted that the three newspapers came to different conclusions about what the logs mean for the war.)
In light of such complications, it’s important for news organizations to explain how they got this information and how they verified it. The Times did this in several ways:
- A “note to readers” explaining how it got the documents, how it weighed the costs and benefits of publishing classified information and how it verified the documents
- A Q&A in which readers could ask more questions
- An explanation of what types of information it had redacted from the logs that it published (see bottom of page)
- A separate news story about WikiLeaks and its motivations in disclosing the documents
But even with those disclosures, it’s still “asymmetrical journalism,” to use David Carr’s term — WikiLeaks determines what it will share, on what terms, and it’s up to the media to go along or watch someone else break the news. (Assange and Ellsberg would point out here that journalism has always been asymmetrical — just in the other direction.)
The power of a Web-native organization
The U.S. military designed the Internet to be decentralized so that enemies or terrorists couldn’t bring down the system by striking at one key location. Likewise, “a government or company that wanted to remove content from WikiLeaks would have to practically dismantle the Internet itself,” Khatchadourian wrote in The New Yorker.
WikiLeaks is extralegal, “the world’s first stateless news organization,” as NYU’s Jay Rosen put it. “To say that it is an independent organization is a monumental understatement,” Keller said in a Times Q&A with readers.
The federal government went to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to stop The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers. In contrast, legal experts noted that now that the war logs have been made public there isn’t really any legal recourse against WikiLeaks. (Though that’s not the case for those suspected of leaking information to the site.)
Perhaps the greatest symbol of how little power the U.S. government has to stop WikiLeaks is that the White House asked the Times to relay its request to WikiLeaks that the organization withhold some harmful information. WikiLeaks has withheld some documents under its “harm minimization process demanded by our source.”
“There’s the new balance of power, right there,” Rosen wrote on his blog. “In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.”
The only question seems to be where Assange will train his eye next. He told Der Spiegel:
What will this citizen of the Internet reveal next about the world we inhabit?