From the standpoint of traditional post-Pentagon Papers, post-Watergate journalism, the decision by The New York Times, along with the Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel, to publish news stories based on the purloined State Department documents made available by WikiLeaks was really no decision at all.
News organizations are in the business of publishing news. They can exercise their judgment with regard to whether, in exceptional circumstances — usually those regarding potential loss of life — news might be redacted, delayed or, on extremely rare occasions, permanently withheld. But the likely embarrassment to individuals, or inconvenience to U.S. diplomats, does not even begin to approach this bar.
The manner in which the newspapers received the information is really not that special, either. The press is always attacked for publishing leaks, but the attackers almost always pick the leaks of which they happen to disapprove.
The conservatives who criticize the publication of the WikiLeaks material were not heard complaining when President George W. Bush and his national security team provided Bob Woodward and his coauthor, Dan Balz, with notes and minutes of still-secret National Security Council proceedings regarding the most sensitive matters of U.S. war planning and intelligence collection.
Similarly it was liberals, not conservatives, who took the Bush administration officials to task for leaking the identity of C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame in order to discredit the information provided by her husband, Joseph Wilson.
What is different about the WikiLeaks data is the scale of the leak, the motive of the leaker, and the manner in which it was ultimately made available.
The traditional motive for a high official to orchestrate a leak is to attempt to control the media narrative. That’s what President Bush and Karl Rove were doing, and what Daniel Ellsberg did decades earlier when he gave the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times.
But in the case of the WikiLeaks material, the trove of information is so enormous and contains so many stories of real import and/or prurient interest that there is no single narrative to control — nor any means to do so. The target is not any U.S. policy or even the U.S. government. It is secrecy itself.
In this respect, the mainstream media institutions are actually playing a far more useful role than they have in many past cases — including, in particular, the run-up to the war in Iraq. The sheer size of the data drop, coupled with the lack of deadline pressure, allowed editors to present what would have been an unmanageable mountain of material in a careful, considered and (partially) contextualized manner.
It also gave the State Department plenty of time to identify which cables were genuinely deserving of continued secrecy. On the basis of State’s suggestions, according to Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, the paper “edited out any information that could identify confidential sources — including informants, dissidents, academics and human rights activists — or otherwise compromise national security.”
At the same time, the technological advances that make possible the publication of the documents demonstrate the loss of power and influence of these institutions.
One reason that nobody has ever leaked on this scale before is that nobody could have transported, much less published, 250,000 documents containing who knows how many (millions of?) pages.
When Ellsberg provided his copies of the Pentagon Papers — a fraction of the size of this document dump — first to The Times and then the Washington Post, one of his biggest concerns was how to store and copy the documents without being discovered and arrested.
Today, the digitization of information has empowered “citizen journalists” like the folks at WikiLeaks to actually determine the agenda of the mainstream media — and of world governments — to a degree most of us are only beginning to understand.
The fact is that if The Times and the other papers had, for whatever reason, declined to play along with WikiLeaks, the material would still have been published. But then we would all be talking about the growing irrelevance of the mainstream media in an age when guerrilla “journalists” can easily execute an end run around them. This has already happened many times, and it hardly serves the interests of the press once it is revealed.
So while it is understandable for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others to fulminate about the potential loss of confidence in U.S. diplomacy and the difficulties the leaked documents will undoubtedly cause, she — and everybody else attempting to keep secrets from the rest of us — need to understand that the game has new rules.
When 250,000 documents can be placed on a zip drive smaller than a popsicle stick, and thousands of citizen journalists are working to make it available to the public, then the guarantee of secrecy for any powerful institution is only a comforting fiction.
So far, in the case of WikiLeaks, those involved in the publication of the papers appear to have operated responsibly, given their respective motives for playing the game. But mainstream editors and reporters may be forgiven for wondering just how long they can remain central in dramas like this one. When the gate’s been toppled, how long does the keeper keep a job?
Eric Alterman, professor of English and journalism at the City University of New York. His books include When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences.