WikiLeaks and mainstream media

Anne Applebaum has set up an engaging straw man in Slate Magazine.

I didn’t think it was possible, but Julian Assange has now done it: By releasing 92,000 documents full of Afghanistan intelligence onto the laptops of an unsuspecting public, the founder of Wikileaks has finally made an ironclad case for the mainstream media. If you were under the impression that we don’t need news organizations, editors, or reporters with more than 10 minutes’ experience anymore, then think again. The notion that the Internet can replace traditional news-gathering has just been revealed to be a myth.

To see what I mean, try reading this: “At 1850Z, TF 2-2 using PREDATOR (UAV) PID insurgents emplacing IEDs at 41R PR 9243 0202, 2.7km NW of FOB Hutal, Kandahar. TF 2-2 using PREDATOR engaged with 1x Hellfire missile resulting in 1x INS KIA and 1x INS WIA. ISAF tracking #12-374.”

Did you get that? I didn’t and would be the first to admit it. I do understand it somewhat better now, however, because the New York Times helpfully explains on its Web site that this excerpt, from one of the WikiLeaks documents, describes a Predator drone firing a missile at men suspected of planting roadside bombs.

Hmmm… I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think that professional reporting is useful and necessary. This was also obvious after the (redacted) ‘official’ version of the MPs’ expenses file was published. Suddenly, one realised how much journalistic slogging went into the Telegraph‘s publication of the details. The truth is that the Web and professional journalism have a symbiotic relationship and feed on one another. Without WikiLeaks, there would have been no Afghan War Log story. And without the interpretation of the raw data, we’d be less the wiser.

The UK Parliamentary expenses scandal also suggests another angle on the Wikileaks story, namely the question of whether the Big Bang release of a torrent of data is the best way to get the public’s attention. What the Daily Telegraph did was to drip-feed the public, day after day, with selected excerpts from their data trove. This kept the story in the headlines for weeks, and undoubtedly magnified the impact of the revelations. Slate writer Jack Shafer thinks that the Big Bang release of the Wikileaks data may have, paradoxically, weakened its impact:

The speed with which the press and the politicians have normalized the material as “nothing new” indicates that WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange may have miscalculated in his desire to get the biggest media bang. He’s been meditating aloud for some time on how to maximize publicity for his material, complaining that media organizations have routinely ignored WikiLeaks postings because nobody gets exclusives on the released material. None would do a document dive for a story if that meant competing with other news organizations.

Could Assange have milked the material to better effect? Shafer thinks that he could have.

To begin with, and I’m repeating myself here, there was too much material for the newspapers and magazines to swallow on such a short deadline. The publications felt that way, too. As Hendler reports, they asked for and got a week extension on the original Assange embargo date. Perhaps he should have given the three publications—which shared notes about the material but not copy— another month. Lesson learned: Too much is sometimes worse than not enough.

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.

In a comment on the Shafer piece, Tom Ricks thinks that it’s more complicated than that. He makes a useful comparison between the Wikileaks data and Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, which were essentially a compendium of Administration thinking about the Vietnam war:

“The reason Wikileaks’ [Assange] did a data dump the way he did, I suspect, is that there really is no there there. That is, he probably knew there was no way to drip this out. These report are similar to what you hear as an embedded reporter sitting around a tactical operations center in the middle of the night. They are the beginning of reporting, not the end. You hear something and say, Is it true? How could I determine that? If it is true, is is significant? Does it mean anything? The Pentagon Papers had all that. This stuff doesn’t.”