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Wikileaks and Sourcing

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, July 26 2010

Here, Micah crosses his fingers in hope that the story of Wikileaks' providing three major news organizations with more than 90,000 documents on the Afghanistan war doesn't become a story, simply, about how and why the materials were leaked, rather than one about the conduct of an eight-year war. Fair enough. But there's something to be said about taking a very close look at the hows and whys of how Julian Assange strategically worked with the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian to get all three to report out the documents, and publish on the same day. Back at PdF Europe in Barcelona, Assange gave a bit of advice to would-be leakers: Don't be a martyr. Instead, "intelligently understand how far you can push government into doing something just." In the AfPak leak, Assange fairly expertly used the norms of established press outlets, and the appeal of even a shared exclusive, to shield himself from some of the criticism that is going to come his way, leaving the White House to complain that "Wikileaks made no effort to contact the US government about these documents," rather than going after three major news organization, each based in a different, big-name country.

If that's not the primary story, it's a story nonetheless. Under this new world order, what has changed about the relationship between citizens and what they can expect to know about what their countries are doing in their names, even on the other side of the world? It might take a white-haired, admittedly oddball resident of Iceland to get us to start considering that question. Some object to Assange because he rather obviously has an agenda. But if we've learned anything in the last 24 hours it's that it's short-sighted to disregard information just because we're a bit uncomfortable where that information is coming from.

More in that vein from a few folks. First up, Jay Rosen on Julian Assange's media strategy:

Why didn’t Wikileaks just publish the Afghanistan war logs and let journalists ‘round the world have at them? Why hand them over to The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first? Because as Julien [sic] Assange, founder of Wikileaks, explained last October, if a big story is available to everyone equally, journalists will pass on it.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he said then. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”

Matt Yglesias on the presumption of secrecy:

Information should be classified when making it publicly available would put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk. And maybe there’s something in this giant trove of documents that meets that standard. But surely Jones isn’t going to seriously maintain that every document in here meets that standard. This report on an orphanage with no orphans, for example, is clearly benign. Reading its explanation of why the orphanage is empty, however, does give the reading public a somewhat deeper understanding of the country of Afghanistan:

And the New Yorker's Amy Davidson on using these docs to put the war in context:

But after more than eight years at war, how carefully are we even looking at Afghanistan? The Times had a piece in Sunday’s paper on the strange truth that our expenditure since 9/11 of a trillion dollars on two wars has barely scraped our consciousness. Fifty-eight Americans have died in Afghanistan so far this month; one of them—Edwin Wood, of Oklahoma—was eighteen years old. Maybe the WikiLeaks documents will make those numbers less abstract.