WikiLeaks won’t change anything, but it could change everything

Anyone expecting the WikiLeaks dump of Afghanistan war documents to spur changes in US policy will be disappointed.

The buzz may have made voting against the continued funding of the war easier for some among the 114 representatives who did so yesterday, but the administration, abetted and in some instances outpaced by many among the institutional press, are doing well at distancing the leaked documents from current policy. Over and over, we hear that it’s old news, there’s nothing new, that was then.

And it’s working. The administration have no intention of backing off the war, never mind ending it, and Congress is about 275 votes shy of forcing their hand. More importantly, a great many people seem to be taking the lead of the pundits and government officials who tell them the appropriate response is either to yawn or to be outraged at the leak rather than by what it reveals. Nothing to see here, move along.

So in that sense, the leak will have done little to change the course of this war. What it has done, though, is to change, overnight and irrevocably, the media landscape. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has become the King of All Media, and others are bound to follow.

Assange did something with his trove of leaked documents that so far as I know has never been done before: He got three major newspapers in three countries—two of which, Germany and the UK, are already in turmoil over the war—to write front-page, in-depth stories about his product, on his timetable, in at least limited cooperation with one another, without knowing the source (because Assange doesn’t either).

In addition, he was able to use their vetting of the documents to verify that his own assessment was accurate, which should give him more confidence in the future.

This is amazing. This is brilliant. It is beyond astonishing. Julian Assange has made the world’s great newspapers his personal publishing houses. In so doing, he has set a precedent that the newspapers will hate but won’t hesitate to follow. “I wish I knew how to quit you, Julian!”

Predictably, the newspapers don’t see it that way, at least not yet. One New York Times reporter, Eric Schmitt, said of Assange to the Columbia Journalism review, somewhat petulantly, that “[t]his was a source relationship. He’s making it sound like this was some sort of journalistic enterprise between WikiLeaks, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and that’s not what it was.”

And in fact, that’s not what it was, or at least not all that it was. He was indeed a source, but he was also, ultimately, the boss. He provided the material, he chose the publishers, and he set the timetable.

“This is what will be published; this is who will publish it; this is when it will be published.”

That’s a source?

Assange didn’t handle the situation perfectly, but for his first time bending a billion dollars worth of press to his will, he showed pretty good chops. Jack Shafer at Slate has a few pointers for Assange on how to get the most from his material next time, principally that’s it better to release a little at a time rather than all at once.

By inundating readers with Assange’s trove, the three news organization broke one of the sacred rules of journalism: If you have a big story—especially one based on a leak like this one—drip, drip, drip it out to your audience rather than showering them with it. The reader can absorb drips better than torrents. Leave the reader wanting more and then deliver the next day. Besides, a drip strategy requires the publication to determine what’s most important in the story. Without looking, can you remember what the most significant part of the Afghanistan story is? The surface-to-air missile report? The stuff about Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence? I’m still dazed by it all. By pouring out the material so quickly, the press caused a flash flood that has already cleared. Lesson learned: Drip irrigation works better than a monsoon.

The added advantage of the discreet drip method is that it bedevils the organization that is suffering the leak.

Discreet leaks are harder to track. They also make the leaked-from outfit paranoid about what else has been leaked. A paranoid card player is a bad card player: More than one reporter has bluffed additional information out of the government with questions implying that he knows more than he really does. But if the government or the corporation you’re investigating knows everything that you know, he’s looking at your cards. Lesson learned: Why do you think they call drip, drip, drip Chinese water torture?

Shafer is not among those bemoaning the untraditional sequence of events here. In the ordinary way, the reporter stands between the reader and the source and the material. You see what the reporter, or his editor, want you to see. The fact that that’s not what happened here is driving some people nuts, and it’s contributing to that “yawn …” attitude from some pundits.

Again at Slate, Farhad Manjoo takes dramatic exception to Assange’s modus operandi. In a story subtitled “Is radical transparency compatible with total anonymity?”, Manjoo asks how the information can be trusted if we don’t know the source.

If we don’t know who the leaker is, why he’s leaking, and how he came upon his information, can we really know the full story the document tells? More importantly, how can we know that the information is authentic? Look deeply into WikiLeaks’ efforts at radical transparency and you find complete opacity; WikiLeaks wants to shine a light on the world, but only by keeping itself shrouded in secrecy.

Manjoo disagrees with my interpretation of his concerns, but what’s bugging him seems to be the question of how we can trust these documents without a reporter intervening to assure us that they’re okay because he has met the source and knows his agenda. With respect to Assange’s comment that the source of the documents requested some be held back to minimize harm, Manjoo says

That’s the problem; the fact that the leaker wants to minimize harm suggests that he, like most whistle-blowers, has some sort of agenda. That agenda is a part of the story, and it could provide valuable context for all of this data. If the source wants the United States to end the war in Afghanistan, we would look at the documents in one way; if he simply wants the U.S. to prosecute the war differently—perhaps, for instance, by sending more troops—we would see the documents in an entirely new context. Because we know nothing about the source, we don’t know the story he’s trying to tell in releasing these—and not other—documents covering the war.

But in fact, that’s not the problem. There are 91,000 documents, and to this point no one has found fault with any of them. We don’t have to know the back story, although it would no doubt make a great human interest feature; all we need to know is that the stuff is real, and knowing the source won’t prove that one way or the other. Even knowing what the source wants is irrelevant; it is, as they say, what it is. Assange says as much during this (somewhat muffled) audio interview with the Washington Post: concentrate on the material.

Jay Rosen, who runs PressThink out of NYU, has had a long, typically thoughtful piece up on the leaks for a few days now, and from which I drew heavily for this story; it’s well worth reading.

But remember, you heard it here first: Julian Assange has changed everything, and he knows it, and everybody else will just have to catch up. Let’s all wish him good health and long life, because he’s going to need it.