How WikiLeaks has changed the role of journalism


WikiLeaks official criticizes New York Times before international group of journalists

Kristinn Hrafnsson, spokesperson for WikiLeaks (photo by JD Lasica)

WikiLinks has changed the role of journalism and “made journalists braver,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, the official spokesperson for WikiLeaks, told an international group of journalists assembled in Santiago, Chile, on Thursday.

Braver, that is, with one striking exception: the New York Times.

“The timidity of the New York Times came as a surprise and disappointment to me,” Hrafnsson told the assembly of 60 news executives, editors and reporters. “It was not the New York Times of the early 1970s where the Times was willing to take on the Nixon administration by publishing the Pentagon Papers.”

It’s pretty much a given that Hrafnsson, or any WikiLeaks official, would be arrested if he set foot in the United States. Hrafnsson also is certain that the National Security Agency monitors every email he receives.

After his presentation, I asked Hrafnsson, a veteran journalist from Iceland, why he was singling out the Times for criticism. (I spoke to the same group a few hours later.)

When WikiLeaks released 77,000 Afghan War documents to news organizations in July 2010, the New York Times was accorded the right to publish the scoop on its website. Instead, Hrafnsson said, the Times apparently was so worried about the likely furor over release of the Afghanistan war logs that critical minutes passed, and the Times decided to report the news only after other publications had done so.

“They were deathly afraid of being the first one to post it on the Internet,” he said. “They were dead frozen with their finger on the button.”

Hrafnsson surmised that the paper feared it would be branded “a traitor” news organization by political figures still incensed over WikiLeaks’ earlier release of classified State Department diplomatic cables. Three months later, when the Iraq war logs were released, the Times — unlike the vast majority of overseas media outlets such as The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais, Der Spiegel, Sweden’s SVT and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism — led with a peculiar news angle about Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs. It downplayed the big news: that the U.S. military was routinely turning over captured civilians and Taliban militants to Iraqi government officials for torture.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they did what they did for political reasons,” Hrafnsson said.

Bill Keller, who recently announced he is stepping down as executive editor of the New York Times, wrote an unflattering account of WikiLeaks and the Times’ dealings with Julian Assange in January, laying out the paper’s justifications for how it covered WikiLeaks’ release of classified documents.

A growing demand for government transparency

Wired magazine wrote last month: “WikiLeaks may have faded from the headlines, but growing numbers of people accept the notion that information collected by and about the government should be online, searchable, and mashable.”

During dinner on Thursday evening, Hrafnsson told me and a colleague from Facebook that large majorities of populations in nations around the world favored WikiLeaks’ release of the classified Afghanistan and Iraq war documents, according to an Ipsos poll of 24 countries. The one outlier? The United States, where 39 percent of Americans favored WikiLeaks’ mission, despite a torrent of negative publicity here.

See the Twitter hashtag #wlfind for current discussions about WikiLeaks. Here are some of the 143,000 diplomatic cables placed online by WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks: Ushering in a new culture of transparency

While I have ambivalent feelings about how WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of classified documents, ultimately I have to throw in my lot with those who are demanding greater transparency from governments across the globe.

Hrafnsson told us that “last year might be remembered as a watershed year when journalists spoke truth to power,” indirectly resulting in the Arab Spring and “a greater respect for human rights” across the globe.

WikiLeaks, he said, has “challenged traditional media and made journalists braver. It has reinvigorated journalists to start asking the hard questions again. And it has forged a new model of collaborating between 75 media organizations in the public interest” — a collaboration that does more for the public good than the one-upsmanship between competing news organizations.

As a result of WikiLeaks, more than 20 new wiki-style platforms have launched, such as Open Leaks, Environ Leaks and Thai Leaks. (See Greg Mitchell in the Nation: In The New ‘Age of Leaks,’ WikiLeaks Is Only the Beginning.)

Hrafnsson was one of the keynotes at a gathering of Grupo de Diarios America, the largest Spanish language network on the globe, whose publications serve more than 50 million readers and users a month.

One last thought: It strikes me that a similar undercurrent of political intimidation and culture of fear is what prevents Al Jazeera English from being carried on any U.S. cable network. Not one cable network carries the news service, despite the fact that nearly 10 million Americans regularly watch its content online — far more than watch many cable news programs.

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