A Renegade Site, Now Working With The News Media

THE four stages of a political movement, as Gandhi told it, were: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” For the whistle-blower Web site WikiLeaks, the release last week of secret field reports on the war in Afghanistan that it obtained from American military sources certainly looked like a victory. Not only did The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel devote hundreds of hours of reporters’ and editors’ time to analyzing and confirming the information in the documents, the three agreed to coordinate publication for last Monday, ensuring there would be blanket news media coverage on at least two continents. This success followed long periods of obscurity, mocking and, at times, hostility toward WikiLeaks and its hard-to-miss leader, Julian Assange, since the site began in late 2006.

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks spoke last week about the Afghanistan documents in front of a photograph from the Vietnam War.
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks spoke last week about the Afghanistan documents in front of a photograph from the Vietnam War.

THE four stages of a political movement, as Gandhi told it, were: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

For the whistle-blower Web site WikiLeaks, the release last week of secret field reports on the war in Afghanistan  that it obtained from American military sources certainly looked like a victory. Not only did The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel devote hundreds of hours of reporters’ and editors’ time to analyzing and confirming the information in the documents, the three agreed to coordinate publication for last Monday, ensuring there would be blanket news media coverage on at least two continents.

This success followed long periods of obscurity, mocking and, at times, hostility toward WikiLeaks and its hard-to-miss leader, Julian Assange, since the site began in late 2006.

“In the beginning, everyone was skeptical of whether it would work out,” said Daniel Schmitt, a WikiLeaks spokesman based in Germany.

Traditional news media may have finally taken WikiLeaks seriously, but the episode also reflected a change within the organization itself. By handing over the documents to professionals, with no strings attached, and before the site itself could offer its own interpretation, WikiLeaks was retreating to the job of information procurer rather than information explainer.

That’s a shift in strategy since the last time WikiLeaks had an important leak — the release in April of a video of United States soldiers in an Apache helicopter killing civilians in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists. Then, WikiLeaks itself tried to supply its own context and analysis.

In addition to an unedited 39-minute version of the video, the site published an edited version, under the title “Collateral Murder,” which was criticized in the media for lacking context and for its provocative title, notably in a testy interview of Mr. Assange by Stephen Colbert.

Lisa Lynch, an assistant professor of journalism at Concordia University in Montreal who has written academic papers on WikiLeaks, called the “Collateral Murder” video “an audacious attempt to assert themselves into the conversation.”

“In a way, the ‘Collateral Murder’ video moved away from the model,” she said, looking back on earlier leaks that were processed without WikiLeaks’ becoming the focal point of the coverage. She added that after the critical reception, “there must have been a realization this was a better way to present the material.”

Mr. Assange certainly seems to have dialed down his language after the experience of “Collateral Murder.” At a news conference last week, he was asked if the Afghan logs showed war crimes by NATO forces.

“It is up to a court to decide really if something in the end is a crime,” he said patiently, though he couldn’t resist adding that “there does appear to be evidence of war crimes.”

Mr. Schmitt confirmed the shift in an interview. “We certainly learned our share from the whole ‘Collateral Murder’ episode,” he said. “We just need to make sure that the line is more distinct than it was with the ‘Collateral Murder’ release.”

In Ms. Lynch’s paper published this year on WikiLeaks and the future of investigative reporting, she said that before the site went live, organizers tried, and largely failed, to get media attention for the site’s first major leak — a 2005 memo on civil war policy by the Somali Islamic court system. The vision was that the memo would be commented on, analyzed and distributed, wiki-style, in the words of one WikiLeak organizer whose e-mail is quoted by Ms. Lynch, by “one hundred thousand enraged Somali refugees, blade and keyboard in hand, cutting apart its pages until all is dancing confetti and the truth.”

In fact, the authenticity of that leak was questioned. Ms. Lynch wrote, “Members expressed frustration that their analysis was granted little authority by the press, with one member acknowledging that until the site was certified by someone with ‘a gold plated reputation,’ it might be hard for them to gain media credibility.”

Even at that time, Mr. Assange was recommending a path that worked closely with traditional media outlets: “We are in a romance with journalists’ hearts; if our voices sweet are not easily reachable on the phone when their desire and deadlines peak, others’ voices, less honeyed but always, always available will replace them,” he wrote in an e-mail in 2007, according to Ms. Lynch.

In the years that followed, WikiLeaks frequently served journalism (particularly in Britain, with its tough libel laws) by hosting material obtained by reporters, but kept secret by court order. In cases involving accusations of tax avoidance, membership in a racist political party and dumping of toxic waste, WikiLeaks published material that The Guardian, among others, was prevented from publishing itself. The Guardian has returned the favor by writing an editorial in praise of WikiLeaks.

The shift in tactics with “Collateral Murder” was debated within WikiLeaks, Mr. Schmitt said in an interview. “There always is debate within WikiLeaks,” he said. “Whether that debate is over the strategy of working with the media or of choosing that title — there is no common opinion about that.”

While WikiLeaks was inching toward traditional media, newsrooms began making their way to WikiLeaks. It was The Guardian that reached out to Mr. Assange to get a look at the WikiLeaks material on Afghanistan, according to a detailed report in the Columbia Journalism Review, not the other way around.

Mr. Assange was eager to comply, and, according to the journalism review, asked that The Times and Der Spiegel be included. He had learned the hard way, Ms. Lynch said, that without enlisting news media coverage, the site’s scoops “were received with a thud.”

The Obama administration sought to undercut the leak in an e-mail to reporters by saying that WikiLeaks was opposed to the war in Afghanistan: “It’s worth noting that WikiLeaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes U.S. policy in Afghanistan” was the advice to reporters. But Mr. Assange, in a more neutral tone, responded that WikiLeaks did not “have a view about whether the war should continue or stop.” But he added: “We do have a view that it should be prosecuted as humanely as possible.”

By the end of the week, President Obama had addressed WikiLeaks, and his defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, had castigated the organization, accusing it of endangering the lives of Afghans by publishing documents that had not been vetted to remove the names of military sources. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the same news conference that WikiLeaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.”

In response on Friday, Mr. Assange was returning to a more combative tone.

“The grounds of Iraq and Afghanistan are covered with real blood,” he told CNN, adding, “Secretary Gates has overseen the killings of thousands of children and adults in these two countries.”

Source : nytimes