Hard to believe, but the NYT hates being upstaged by Julian Assange

Bill Keller is the executive editor of The New York Times. On Wednesday, January 26, his article for the Magazine, “Dealing with Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets,” was published, detailing the behind-the-scenes process of his newspaper’s collaboration and eventual falling-out with the enigmatic vigilante journalist.

Keller’s implicit message, however, was impossible to miss: Julian Assange is a reckless, harmful individual whose self-delusion and visions of grandeur belied his inability to produce real journalism — a task which, of course, is ostensibly exactly what The New York Times does on a regular basis.

Except for when it doesn’t. As I read Keller’s piece, I was often astonished at his utter lack of introspection — from both a personal and professional perspective — as well as his defense of some very questionable decisions made by him and his staff. Here, below, are a few of my thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Keller recounts how, in October 2010, Assange gave The Guardian access to secret diplomatic cables on the condition that they not be shared with The New York Times. (Assange had soured on the newspaper after it had printed unsympathetic features on him and Bradley Manning, the Army private who was later incarcerated for stealing and transmitting classified documents.) Despite agreeing to Assange’s demand in exchange for the diplomatic cables, The Guardian soon reneged on its deal. This is a hugely significant breach of journalistic standards, and yet Keller’s treatment of it is remarkably supportive:

The Guardian was uncomfortable with Assange’s condition. By now the journalists from The Times and The Guardian had a good working relationship. The Times provided a large American audience for the revelations, as well as access to the U.S. government for comment and context. And given the potential legal issues and public reaction, it was good to have company in the trenches. Besides, we had come to believe that Assange was losing control of his stockpile of secrets. An independent journalist, Heather Brooke, had obtained material from a WikiLeaks dissident and joined in a loose alliance with The Guardian. Over the coming weeks, batches of cables would pop up in newspapers in Lebanon, Australia and Norway. David Leigh, The Guardian’s investigations editor, concluded that these rogue leaks released The Guardian from any pledge, and he gave us the cables.

It seems less than self-evident that “batches of cables…[popping] up in newspapers” would release a newspaper from its confidentiality agreement with a source. This is especially true in that The Guardian clearly did not run this by Assange himself before sharing the cables with The New York Times: The Guardian‘s decision not to consult Assange on the matter is even more puzzling. Why, if they were convinced they were acting with integrity and operating under realistic understandings of their agreement with Assange, would the editors at The Guardian forgo the obvious next step of gaining Assange’s approval?

In fact, as Keller soon makes abundantly clear, his newspaper was well aware that its receipt of the cables would be highly upsetting to Assange. Referring to a meeting between Guardian and Times representatives and Assange, after the latter newspaper was granted unauthorized access to them, Keller writes, “The meeting went smoothly, even after Assange arrived. ‘Freakishly good behavior,’ Fisher e-mailed me afterward. “No yelling or crazy mood swings.”” And yet, bizarrely, Keller provides no further explanation of just why the unaccountable appearance of some cables in other publications implicitly granted The Guardian permission to share their stash with The New York Times. (Elsewhere, for example, Keller takes time to dutifully explain that it is common for a source to provide exclusive information to a newspaper on the condition that the information only be published after a certain date, just as Assange did. Keller’s carefulness in assuring The Times‘ readers of the ubiquity of these conditions stands in stark contrast to the utter lack of historical context provided in defense of journalistic procedures for breaching an agreement with a source.)

2. This is somewhat related to #1, but The Guardian‘s behavior following its unauthorized transfer of the WikiLeaks cables to The Times is baffling indeed. Keller writes: “In the end…[both The Guardian and Der Spiegel] made clear that they intended to continue their collaboration with The Times; Assange could take it or leave it. Given that we already had all of the documents, Assange had little choice. Over the next two days, the news organizations agreed on a timetable for publication.”

Again, what possible rationale could The Guardian have for delivering an ultimatum to a source who had just provided them with an invaluable scoop? Viewed from a short-term perspective, the decision makes little sense: The Guardian was being provided information from an exclusive source, so why jeopardize that? Furthermore, since when has a news organization been so eager to share its scoop with another one (even if they operate in separate markets) that it would go so far as to refuse to publish documents unless the other newspaper were allowed to publish them too? This goes against every capitalistic and competitive instinct that has governed newspapers and every other industry since Adam Smith first conceived of the invisible hand. Try to imagine Steve Jobs refusing to sell the MacBook Pro unless it came prepackaged with Microsoft Office as well.

Then again, try to imagine things ten years from now. Perhaps Google has exploded into the computing space, unexpectedly capturing a large share of the OS market with its sleek Chrome system. Perhaps the computers that run Chrome have become so popular that Google’s ascendancy in every aspect of online computing appears unstoppable. Would Jobs’ alignment with Microsoft then look so inexplicable? Seen in this light, The Guardian‘s embrace of its competitor (and yes, they are competitors, especially now that newspapers’ online presence has made trans-Atlantic competition for readership a stark reality) begins to make some sense. The Guardian‘s greatest enemy is not, incidentally, The New York Times. No, it’s the Internet, and thus the democratization of news, and thus the existence of an organization such as Wikileaks, which has emerged from the shadows of a virtual one-man operation into a global behemoth that beat the world’s largest news organizations to the biggest story of the year. Indeed, The Guardian played tough with Assange and allied itself with The Times (against all short-term reasoning) precisely because it was acting in its own long-term interest. (Or so it thought. Traditional newspapers’ undisguised disgust for new media is rendering their own industry increasingly irrelevant. An increasing number of top stories are now being broken by non-traditional news sources [e.g. The National Enquirer‘s coverage of John Edwards’ affair], and this trend will only increase unless newspapers change course quickly.) As for Bill Keller’s initial synopsis of the two papers’ collaboration? “Journalists are characteristically competitive, but the group worked well together,” he wrote.

3. Keller contradicts himself in describing the American government’s dealing with The Times. In an article rife with self-congratulation and faux-reflections, Keller, in an early burst of self-martyrdom, states that “the [Wikileaks] project also entailed…an array of government officials who sometimes seemed as if they couldn’t decide whether they wanted to engage us or arrest us.”

And yet later on, he concedes:

This time around, the Obama administration’s reaction was…for the most part, sober and professional. The Obama White House, while strongly condemning WikiLeaks for making the documents public, did not seek an injunction to halt publication. There was no Oval Office lecture. On the contrary, in our discussions before publication of our articles, White House officials, while challenging some of the conclusions we drew from the material, thanked us for handling the documents with care. The secretaries of state and defense and the attorney general resisted the opportunity for a crowd-pleasing orgy of press bashing. There has been no serious official talk — unless you count an ambiguous hint by Senator Joseph Lieberman — of pursuing news organizations in the courts. Though the release of these documents was certainly embarrassing, the relevant government agencies actually engaged with us in an attempt to prevent the release of material genuinely damaging to innocent individuals or to the national interest.

These two statements are irreconcilable. Aside from the obvious hyperbole — not since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, and perhaps even including them, has such a furor erupted as would occur if top officials at The New York Times were arrested for publishing material, especially documents that had already been leaked to another source (Assange) — the dual claims don’t add up. Either the government acted professionally and fully engaged with The New York Times, or it didn’t. But both cannot be true.

Keller’s inability to spot the blatant hypocrisy in his own self-aggrandizement is obvious to anyone who reads his article carefully. He includes superfluous references to what he implies was a courageous decision to print stories about President George W. Bush’s warrant-less wiretapping and international bank screening operations — a position that makes little sense given the paper’s obvious lack of interest in the opinions of a president it so relentlessly (and justifiably) criticized for eight years. Keller also expounds at great length on the paper’s commitment to preventing deaths caused by publishing unredacted documents, where a simple paragraph or two would have sufficed. He states that “there are few places — and fewer by the day — where you can go to find honest, on-the-scene reporting about what is happening” in Iraq and Afghanistan, without elaborating on what exactly he means by the phrase “and fewer by the day.” He needlessly trumpets the tragic wartime deaths of several Times journalists (multiple times), choosing to exploit their truncated lives as a corporate badge of honor, when in reality all wartime reporters face similarly life-threatening conditions, regardless of which storied publication’s title graces their employer’s front pages. It strains the limits of credulity to read so little self-criticism in the recap of a story that epitomizes so much that is deficient about the traditional news media.

4. A good journalist doesn’t merely tell a story, but uses his words to paint a picture. Bill Keller knows this. This is why, instead of making his disdain for Julian Assange entirely explicit, he chooses instead to sprinkle it in fragments throughout his writing. Keller frequently portrays Assange in less-than-favorable ways, all while maintaining an ostensibly neutral point of view that affords himself plausible deniability if confronted with the charge of character assassination.

Keller alternately describes Assange as “eccentric;” “elusive, manipulative, and volatile;” “a man who clearly had his own agenda;” “arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous;” “naïve;” someone “transformed by his outlaw celebrity;” and even, oddly, “a character from a Stieg Larsson thriller — a man who could figure either as hero or villain in one of the megaselling Swedish novels that mix hacker counterculture, high-level conspiracy and sex as both recreation and violation.” (I have not read any of Larsson’s books, but this sounds suspiciously like claiming every Chinese man reminds one of Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 2. It’s just a little odd that two of Sweden’s most well-recognizable citizens to Americans would have so much in common. Lazy journalism is infinitely more probable, especially considering the fact that Keller managed to recycle the Larsson analogy later on in the article.)

At one point, Keller quotes Thomas Jefferson, who famously said that he would prefer newspapers without government over government without newspapers. I prefer neither option. But it seems safe to assume that Jefferson, if confronted with the contemporary abdication of responsibility by our major news organizations, would be perfectly happy with a substitute, in the form of Julian Assange.

Correction (2/8/2011): I mistakenly stated that Julian Assange is a Swedish citizen, which is incorrect. He is Australian.

One thought on “Hard to believe, but the NYT hates being upstaged by Julian Assange

  1. Pingback: Why wouldn’t the New York Times promote its own reporting? « the first casualty

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