NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said it could take weeks to determine how much damage WikiLeaks’ release of military documents on the war in Afghanistan did to national security. It took only minutes to gauge its effect on the way people get news.
WikiLeaks posted some 91,000 documents on its website, but to make sure they got attention and heavy exposure, they shared them first with The New York Times, London’s Guardian newspaper and German news magazine Der Spiegel.
The episode underscores how the Web and social media give groups that did not exist a few years ago central roles in journalism, and how mainstream media outlets still play a key role in analyzing and disseminating news.
It also shows that the brand names of those outlets, even as their luster fades in the Web age, can amplify the perceived importance of news based on how prominently they cover it.
The question is whether WikiLeaks is journalism, a term whose plasticity has been tested by organizations publishing on blogs and Twitter as the Web threatens traditional outlets’ finances and loosens their grip on who publishes the news.
“I don’t know what you call what WikiLeaks is doing, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way,” said Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief of investigative journalism group ProPublica and former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. “They’re a new phenomenon.”
Whereas newspapers like The New York Times look to historical guideposts of “All the news that’s fit to print” and reporting the news “without fear or favor,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Der Spiegel, “I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing the bastards.”
WikiLeaks has published thousands of documents from sources that it says expose corporate and government corruption. It posted a video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq in 2007 that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters journalists.
WikiLeaks proclaims its opinions, calling the helicopter attack video “Collateral Murder.”
That video garnered as much criticism for WikiLeaks as the U.S. military got for the attack. Some detractors accused WikiLeaks of selective editing to buttress its point of view, though to be sure, mainstream media outlets have been hit with similar accusations for hundreds of years.
In the latest case, WikiLeaks got lots of attention on the Afghanistan documents by limiting initial distribution of its documents to traditional news outlets that are world famous for their journalism, if not universally trusted.
Their decisions to play up the documents ensured that their impact rippled throughout the world, even as many observers said there was little new information in them. Within minutes of their release online, links to the stories appeared on Twitter, blogs discussions began and news websites picked up the reports.
“The more important a leak is and the bigger it is, the less chance it has of being properly reported if it is released at once to everyone,” the thin, white-maned 39-year-old said at a news conference in London on Monday. WikiLeaks shared the material with the mainstream papers a month before publication, giving them time to study the documents.
Assange has no home and stays with friends around the world. His network, he said, includes 800 part-time volunteers and 10,000 “supporters.” WikiLeaks relies on servers in several countries where laws give it more protection for its disclosures, The New York Times reported.
The WikiLeaks page on Twitter lists its location as “everywhere.”
According to a June article in The New Yorker, the Australian Assange and his colleagues use encrypted communications and a suspicion of surveillance prevails.
In some ways, WikiLeaks is vaporizing traditional notions of reporting.
Using a network of people to pore through documents is what journalism experts call “crowdsourcing” -- using many people to learn things instead of relying on the lone investigative reporter meeting Deep Throat in a parking lot.
In this case, WikiLeaks employed its network to sort through the documents, but essentially enlisted the Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel as fact checkers and well-recognized stamps of approval for the quality of the information -- a form of collaboration that rarely if ever happened before the Web.
“Had they simply posted all of the material they’d gotten, they could be accused of being grossly irresponsible,” said Edward Wasserman, a media ethics professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. “And they would never have achieved the kind of prominence and never received the kind of publicity that they’ve received.”
Reporting By Robert MacMillan in New York and Peter Griffiths in London, Editing by Howard Goller and Jackie Frank