The New York Times Sunday Magazine published a brilliant essay today by Executive Editor Bill Keller, “The Boy Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” that describes an evolving relationship between news media outlets and their source and the complex balancing act between the freedom of press and a government’s responsibility to protect. It portrays a fascinating behind the scenes view of how several normally competing news organizations worked collaboratively with the source, Julian Assange, to make sense of mountains of disparate, arcane pieces of data in multiple forms.
One of the major sources for Assange allegedly was Private First Class Bradley Manning, described by The New York Times as “disillusioned,” but by Assange as someone who has experienced a “political awakening.” By all accounts, Pfc. Manning appears to have broken the law many times.
There has been much ado about Wikileaks, but Bill Keller provides a different perspective:
Ninety-nine percent of what we read or hear on the news does not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works.
…these documents provide texture, nuance and drama. They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold…
I am no fan of WikiLeaks; dumping hundreds of thousands of documents with little or no meaning to the public (much of it, according to Bill Keller, is in “clunky patois of military jargon and acronyms”) seems to have minimal value at best – all at a potential price of nothing less than national security. After all, it took several computer experts to accomplish the basic task of assembling the vast data into searchable format. The public had to rely on the best journalists in the world, ranging from The New York Times, to The Guardian to Der Spiegel, to provide meaning and context.
And very telling:
Several news organizations, including ours, reported this dangerous lapse, and months later a Taliban spokesman claimed that Afghan insurgents had been perusing the WikiLeaks site and making a list.
I highly recommend this article as a case study of the tension between a free press and the government. According to Max Frankel:
For the vast majority of ‘secrets,’ there has developed between the government and the press (and Congress) a rather simple rule of thumb: The government hides what it can, pleading necessity as long as it can, and the press pries out what it can, pleading a need and a right to know. Each side in this ‘game’ regularly ‘wins’ and ‘loses’ a round or two. Each fights with the weapons at its command. When the government loses a secret or two, it simply adjusts to a new reality.
Bill Keller’s description of the devolving relationship between The Times and Assange was fascinating, particularly in light of the dramatically different views each had of the other. I have attempted to summarize this below, using quotes from each party:
The New York Times description of Assange, following the narative of Keller’s essay:
“a bit of Peter Pan”
“disheveled, like a bag lady”
“losing control of his secrets”
“raged against The Times”
Assange, according to Assange:
boasted that he served as a “puppet master” of several news organizations
“Where’s the respect?” (To The Times)
I “created scientific journalism”
Readers – I look forward to your comments and opinion regarding this important article by Bill Keller.