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Diplomat Carne Ross Asks: Are the Cables Too Important to Leave to WikiLeaks, the NYTimes, and The Guardian to Sift?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, February 4 2011

I spent yesterday deep in the weeds of WikiLeaks post-mortemizing, first at an invitation-only session run by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at the Harvard Kennedy School and then in the evening at a jam-packed public event hosted by the Columbia University Journalism School. You can read my live notes from Harvard here and Columbia here. This is what happens, I guess, when you write a quickie book on the topic (pre-order your copies here).

I was struck by two things across both events, which featured top editors from the New York Times and the Guardian, and in the case of Harvard, a strong contingent of former top government officials. First, that too much of the Eastern Establishment (for the lack of a better term) thinks this WikiLeaks thing is mostly about them and their roles--"Did the Times editors do the right thing in publishing their stories?" "Did the Times 'sully' its reputation by working with Julian Assange, a man with 'an agenda'?" "How badly has this actually harmed American diplomacy?" And so on.

At best, the Eastern Establishment seems resigned to not being able to prosecute Assange in a serious way, because of how that would also damage more "respectable" journalism, and seems to be hoping this will all go away soon. "The less attention paid to Assange, the better," if you will. But as I said up at Harvard at my first chance to comment, it was as if we were all patrons of a polite country club where a streaker just ran past on the lawn, and our main topic of conversation was how to fix the club's fences. The notion that the fences were actually gone, or that the public might actually like seeing the emperor with his clothes off (sorry, I know this mangles my metaphor) just wasn't on their minds. Oh, and more sherry, please?

My second observation is how little people are thinking about the full meaning of the cables, the full archives of which both the Times and the Guardian actually have, we're now finally being told. We're hearing a lot right now about how the Times and the Guardian managed their often rocky relations with Assange, and in the case of the Times also how they've navigated their relations with the US Government too. Bill Keller in particular seems anxious to reassure Washington that the Times can still be trusted. And yet both he and David Sanger, who was the center of attention at the Harvard colloquium, have admitted that despite their best "news judgment" they didn't realize the importance of the cables on Tunisia or Egypt.

"Was Tunisia in [our] initial coverage?" Sanger asked of himself, rhetorically. "Not a word. I wasn't smart enough to look for it." Keller, after hearing Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian describe that paper's invitation to its readers to suggest topics to search in the cable archives, said, "I wonder if somebody would have teased out the cables on Tunisia." Said Sanger, "We focused on subjects that were most in the news. Clearly we didn't spend enough time on the material on Egypt," he added.

Indeed, what is yet again becoming painfully clear is that the Times' editors all too often think like the powerful people they cover. To them, the close relationship between Washington and the authoritarian regimes of Tunisia and Egypt wasn't really "news." The fact that a US Ambassador might write a candid description of Tunisian government corruption and that the US would continue sending fresh infusions of foreign aid there just isn't news, somehow.

And that brings me to today's post by former British diplomat Carne Ross, who in my mind has been raising many of the most cogent questions about Cablegate. Ross asked the first audience question at last night's Columbia event, and as he explains in his post, Keller and Rusbridger's responses left him convinced that neither paper is truly up to the task of divining all the news in the huge 250,000 document caches they are holding. He writes:

Despite these evident weaknesses in the Guardian's and Times' comprehension of the data, both Rusbridger and Keller repeated that they would not countenance releasing the whole stock of cables.  Rusbridger claimed that the public would not understand them and that there would therefore be little news in them (perhaps he was jet-lagged but I really did not understand his point).  Keller contradicted him and said that he thought that lots of people would rummage around in the data, including experts, causing a "cacophony" (heaven forbid!).  But he suggested, as he has before, that the public cannot be trusted with the data (but of course, he did not need to add, the New York Times can be).
All in all, Keller and Rusbridger gave a rather unimpressive exposition of these papers' handling of the most important release of diplomatic and political data in recent times.  I should add that both were notably dismissive and critical of Assange.   Keller in particular went out of his way to make some silly and sneering remarks about Assange, which reflected rather worse on Keller than they did on Assange himself. Keller described Assange as a mere "source" and one got the impression that Keller was distinctly unhappy with WikiLeaks' assault on the authority of newspapers to disseminate only what they see fit as news.

Ross concludes with two very important insights:

Neither the newspapers nor WikiLeaks have the capacity fully to analyse the full stock of leaked cables, thanks to the sheer volume of cables but also their extremely broad and manifold political significance. Nonetheless, the newspapers have decided to stop reporting the cables, and believe that they have no duty to release further cables to the public. Secondly, neither newspaper necessarily has the capacity to understand the potential impact of the cables.  This is because the data is simply too complicated and voluminous for any one authority to claim to understand in full.

And, as we have seen from both the Tunisia and Egypt cases, if you are not a member of the Eastern Establishment, which unfortunately takes as given all kinds of "stable" aspects of U.S. foreign policy, you may discover news in the cables that the Times and even the Guardian can't quite see. Can we imagine some kind of system for vetting the as-yet unread cables for that kind of news, while insuring that individual names and details are properly redacted? That's Ross's critical question and it's the most important one I've seen in weeks on WikiLeaks.