Letter: Lack of WikiLeaks coverage disturbing, but not surprising

Romenesko Letters

From JOHN PARKER: The sad lack of coverage ("Sunday talk shows largely ignore WikiLeaks' Iraq files") of the leak of unfiltered, publicly owned information from the latest WikiLeak is disturbing, but not historically out of the ordinary for major American media.

The career trend of too many Pentagon journalists typically arrives at the same vanishing point: Over time they are co-opted by a combination of awe -- interacting so closely with the most powerfully romanticized force of violence in the history of humanity -- and the admirable and seductive allure of the sharp, amazingly focused demeanor of highly trained military minds. Top military officers have their s*** together and it's personally humbling for reporters who've never served to witness that kind of impeccable competence. These unspoken factors, not to mention the inner pull of reporters' innate patriotism, have lured otherwise smart journalists to abandon – justifiably in their minds – their professional obligation to treat all sources equally and skeptically.

Too many military reporters in the online/broadcast field have simply given up their watchdog role for the illusion of being a part of power. Example No. 1 of late is Tom Gjelten of NPR. Interviewed by his colleague on Oct. 22 about the latest WikiLeaks documents, this exchange happened:

Robert Siegel: And reaction to the release today?

Gjelten: Well, the Pentagon is, understandably, very angry, as they were when the documents from Afghanistan were released. They said this decision to release them was made cavalierly. They do point out - and I can't say I disagree (emphasis mine) - that the period in Iraq that these documents covered was already very well chronicled. They say it does not bring new understanding to those events.

There it is in black and white. Gjelten is lending his credibility to the Pentagon as “neutral” national journalist. I was in journalism for too many years not to recognize what Gjelten was doing. He got scooped. CYA mode kicked in and the first thing to tell his editors and staff was, “This is old news.”

To his major credit, though, after the New York Times and other major news organizations exposed dozens of new revelations from the new WikiLeaks documents, Gjelten admirably and competently summarized other journalists' work during his on-air segments.

Gjelten, other Pentagon journalists and informed members of the public would benefit from watching "The Selling of the Pentagon," a 1971 documentary. It details how, in the height of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon sophisticatedly used taxpayer money against taxpayers in an effort to sway their opinions toward the Pentagon’s desires for unlimited war. Forty years later, the techniques of shaping public opinion via media has evolved exponentially. It has reached the point where flipping major journalists is a matter of painting in their personal numbers.


John Parker

Former military reporter and fellow of the University of Maryland Knight Center for Specialized Journalism-Military Reporting.

  • Jim Romenesko

    From 1999 to 2011, Jim Romenesko maintained the Romenesko page for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based non-profit school for journalists. Poynter hired him in August of 1999, after seeing his MediaGossip.com, a hobby site he started in May of 1999.


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