What the WikiLeaks Leak Means — And Doesn’t Mean — for Media

Flood of war documents makes a lot of noise, but teaches us little

Last Updated: July 29, 2010 @ 10:21 AM

There are many, many, many media pundits weighing in on what WikiLeaks’ carefully orchestrated flood of classified Afghanistan War documents this week means for media – and the journalism business — moving forward.

I agree with a few conclusions, and disagree with many.

I’ll start with the ones I think are wrong.

>> “The WikiLeaks papers remake the journalism world.” In a column on Tuesday, Vanity Fair columnist and Newser founder Michael Wolff actually wrote this. Wolff is an often-brilliant provocateur, but this is a bit breathless, even for him. For the statement to be true, he’d have to define “the journalism world” as a dozen media outlets with the reach and resources to handle (vet, factcheck, etc.) the WikiLeaks dump — not the tens of thousands of publishers (Newser included) that make up the media universe.

>> The New York Times, London Guardian and Der Spiegel mean more than the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Time magazine, Newsweek or the Economist. This is another Wolff argument. That WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange chose to give the Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel exclusive, early access to the 91,000 documents is an indictment of the rivals of the outlets he didn’t give access to. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m not arguing it was random – Assange chose the North American “paper of record,” a European newspaper and – who knows – maybe his favorite newsweekly. A coup for the trio, to be sure, but Wikileaks did not “kick Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal out of the circle of world’s best print journalism organizations.” They won a battle — probably an important one — but not the war.

>> “The leaker is the journalist.” Last Wolff argument I’ll bat down. This would mean that the journalistic cred would be given not to WikiLeaks, but to whoever leaked these documents to Assange. Not Gizmodo, but the guy who “found” the next-gen iPhone in a Silicon Valley bar. Not Radar or TMZ, but Oksana Grigorieva. (Would you call Oksana a journalist?) Not Woodward and Bernstein, but “Deep Throat.”

Sorry, I don’t buy that.

Here are the conclusions from the WikiLeak fallout I think are right:

>> The WikiLeaks War Logs are the closest thing we have had in media to the Pentagon Papers. Those were in 1971. Since I was negative seven-years-old at the time, I’ll politely defer my own opinion on the accuracy of that comparison. But there are people other than Assange who think so. Like, for instance, Daniel Ellsberg, the researcher who leaked the Pentagon Papers. "The parallels are very strong," Ellsberg told the Washington Post. "This is the largest unauthorized disclosure since the Pentagon Papers. In actual scale, it is much larger, and thanks to the Internet, it has moved [around the world] much faster."

>> But not that close. While staggering in volume, the leak does not appear to be less-than- revelatory. “No single message has emerged from the Afghan documents the way it did from the Pentagon Papers,” the Post noted. According to the Associated Press, the documents “cover much of what the public already knows about the troubled nine-year conflict: U.S. special operations forces have targeted militants without trial, Afghans have been killed by accident, and U.S. officials have been infuriated by alleged Pakistani intelligence cooperation with the very insurgent groups bent on killing Americans.”

>> “The U.S. paid Afghan media to run friendly stories.” This not punditry, but an actual revelation buried in the War Logs and dug up by ex-Gawker and current Yahoo News investigative reporter John Cook. It’s not surprising, given pay-for-play allegations the Pentagon has faced in the past, but no less troubling – especially the term military officials use in reference to the “friendly” stories it apparently pays for: “psychological operations.”

This is, perhaps, the biggest media lesson of any to come out of the latest "Leak."