Why we need organizations like Wikileaks

Here’s why:

When the New York Times revealed the location of the U.S.’s top-secret drone base in Saudi Arabia today, after months of keeping the information quiet, the other most important news outlets in the country sheepishly admitted they’d known about it, too. Along with the Washington Post, which said it had “an informal arrangement” with the government for more than a year, the Associated Press added last night that it “first reported the construction of the base in June 2011 but withheld the exact location at the request of senior administration officials.” Asked why the Times acted now, the paper’s managing editor Dean Baquet told public editor Margaret Sullivan it was simple: John Brennan’s big day.

“It was central to the story because the architect of the base and drone program is nominated to head the C.I.A.,” Baquet explained. Brennan’s confirmation hearings start tomorrow, and the Times decided it was important to discuss his pivotal role in U.S. operations in Yemen, where dozens of suspected terrorists have been targeted by drones, beforehand.

Previously, the government worried that the Saudis “might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset,” so when the location “was a footnote,” the Times complied, Baquet said. “We have to balance that concern with reporting the news.” (Fox News, too, appears to have published the Saudi Arabian base location briefly in 2011 before switching to the more general “Arabian Peninsula.”)

When the location was a footnote? As decided by whom: the White House? And I have to laugh at Baquet’s comment about “[balancing] that concern with reporting the news.” Forgive me for assuming that reporting on secretive government wartime activity conducted without the knowledge of its taxpaying citizens might be considered, without resorting to qualification or euphemism, damn newsworthy. Forgive me further for daring to presume that government “concern” is a stalling tactic as old as the media and the state themselves, and that the Times, which published the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks cables, must know a little something about that. Even the Times‘ normally decent public editor Margaret Sullivan scored an assist on the coverup this time:

One of its revelations is the location of a drone base in Saudi Arabia. The Times and other news organizations, including The Washington Post, had withheld the location of that base at the request of the C.I.A., but The Times decided to reveal it now because, according to the managing editor Dean Baquet, it was at the heart of this particular article and because examining Mr. Brennan’s role demanded it…

If it was ever appropriate to withhold the information, that time was over. The drone program needs as much sunlight as possible. This is another crucial step in the right direction.

No, a crucial step in the right direction would have been to publish that remarkable story back when the Times actually found out about it. Amazing that the newspaper had no problem helping to push us into war in Iraq with shoddy, factually incorrect reporting, but it now claims the mantle of journalistic responsibility in defense of delaying the reporting of relevant facts about our ever-expanding drone wars. Here’s the Washington Post‘s equally appalling take:

The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.

In China, of course, this would be called government censorship. But here in the United States, it’s just old-fashioned journalistic integrity. Glad we have that cleared up.

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Bill Keller: Democracy is dangerous. Maybe we should tone it down.

If nothing else, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s resignation from his position to return to writing columns has accomplished this: instead of inferring his stupidity from years of the Grey Lady’s questionable editorial choices, we can now confirm it directly by reading his essays. After vaingloriously confronting Arianna Huffington — including his now-infamous, yet not inaccurate disparagement of her as “the queen of aggregation” — and variously deriding new media as vapid and emotionless, Keller has now set his sights on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

Whether Keller’s latest column, “Why Tyrants Love the Murdoch Scandal,” was penned out of faux-modesty or genuine concern is at once an academic debate and one for which either answer is equally terrifying. For it is not the motive behind his words, but the fact that they exist at all — and in the pages of the vaunted New York Times, no less — that imbues them with such awesome power.

The first signs of trouble appear immediately. Notice, for example, that signature Kellerism: the cloying way he simultaneously feigns to refrain from, while gleefully leaping into, criticism of an arch-nemesis, News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch. “Nor is this the place to celebrate a rival’s troubles,” he writes, before adding, “True, I did pull from my files and savor the indignant letters we received from News of the World’s top editors last year as we prepared to publish an investigation of the paper’s phone-hacking culture and Scotland Yard’s timidity — work that has been fully vindicated in recent weeks.”

But even such condescension is little more than a distracting aside. His real problem lies in the substance of his column. Keller inexplicably uses the fall from grace (from acceptance? from toleration?) of Murdoch’s News of the World to make a broader point about freedom of the press. Apparently, the police and parliamentary investigation of Murdoch’s publication represents some sort of threat to the democratic principle of free expression. We know this because Keller quotes an anonymous South African friend, who notes that his native country, which is already growing increasingly hostile to an unfettered media presence, may indeed find justification for its repression in the goings-on of the phone-hacking scandal. “‘You can be sure they will use the phone-hacking fallout to help make their case,'” Keller’s bizarrely unnamed friend informs him. “‘Nobody pays much attention to the effect of something like this on little countries like ours.'”

Indeed one doesn’t. And that is precisely because the effect is insignificant, if it exists at all. “Despots love to see a free press behaving badly,” Keller solemnly intones. And yet they seem to do just fine in its absence. There is no more enduring truism of totalitarian states than that they will, and do, seize inspiration for their tyranny in the most absurd places. To censor one’s perfectly legal, and even morally necessary, actions in order to appease the beast beyond our shores is patently insane. Paraphrasing Voltaire, if the phone-hacking scandal did not exist, it would be necessary — for dictators around the world, at least — to invent it. By this logic, perhaps Norway should think twice about imprisoning Anders Behring Breivik, for fear this may inspire crackdowns on political protest in Uganda.

Holding sacred democratic institutions hostage to the whims of dictators would seem to be anathema to the current executive editor of the New York Times, which is why its implied advocacy is so shocking. No one is suggesting — even in Britain, where press restrictions are more in vogue — that a nation should block access to the independent media or prevent it from expressing controversial viewpoints. In fact, Keller admits as much: “I’m not terribly alarmed that either Britain or the United States will significantly roll back the protections that allow us to hold our governments accountable — up to and including the hot scrutiny of stories like the WikiLeaks disclosures.”

What is taking place, however, is the mandatory legal process necessitated by News of the World‘s culture of disdain for the laws of the nation in which it operated. To ignore their incursions would be a far greater abandonment of democratic ideals, and would thus provide correspondingly greater fodder for the consistently bad intentions of undemocratic regimes.

Why wouldn’t the New York Times promote its own reporting?

Because editor Bill Keller would rather bury his paper’s own accomplishments than admit that Julian Assange and his organization conduct proper journalism, that’s why. ForbesAndy Greenberg blogged today about the curious absence of Wikileaks reporting in yesterday’s Pulitzer Prize ceremonies:

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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: Continue reading

Transparency: For best results, use only on others

As per today’s New York Times, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had this to say about allegations of sexual wrongdoing: “On Friday, he told the BBC that the case presented in the London courts was ‘a smear attempt,’ and that the impending publication of the Swedish police documents amounted to ‘another smear attempt.'”

This is a bit odd. Julian Assange thinks the publication of, well, something is actually negative. And yet, thanks to him, we are now privy to such pertinent information as the fact that Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s ever-present personal nurse is a “voluptuous blonde.” I mean, someone’s got to report on this stuff.

And speaking of odd…um, Joe Lieberman appears to have located his long-lost set of morals. This has been a strange last few days.

A specter is haunting Congress — the specter of rational thinking

Just when I thought all hope was lost, a real, live politician in the United States House of Representatives made a reasoned, responsible statement today. I’d almost forgotten that’s what they were there to do. Anyway, it was John Conyers (D-MI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who, in his opening remarks, said the only thing that made sense, which is the following (as found here, with slight edits): Continue reading

How dare they block the Times? Oh, and also, what is that…a Facebook page?

Mark Thompson of TIME posted a brief analysis of the Air Force’s ban of major online news sites due to WikiLeaks. In response, one military man felt obliged to stand up on behalf of his fellow servicemen:

Somewhat reassuringly (or terrifyingly), if this man’s comments are any indication, it appears that the ban is having little to no effect on personnel’s reading habits.

The First Amendment has its place, yes. Behind glass in a museum.

On December 7, the U.S. State Department issued a press release through official spokesman P.J. Crowley, announcing that the United States would host the 2011 World Press Freedom Day:

The United States is pleased to announce that it will host UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event in 2011, from May 1 – May 3 in Washington, D.C…

The theme for next year’s commemoration will be 21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers. The United States places technology and innovation at the forefront of its diplomatic and development efforts. New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. We mark events such as World Press Freedom Day in the context of our enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age…

And now today, as reported on the front page of the online edition of The New York Times (“Air Force Limits Access to Web Sites Over Secret Cables”):

The Air Force is barring its personnel from using work computers to view the Web sites of The New York Times and more than 25 other news organizations and blogs that have posted secret cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Air Force officials said on Tuesday.

When Air Force personnel on the service’s computer network try to view the Web sites of The Times, the Guardian of London, Germany’s Der Spiegel, Spain’s El Pais and France’s Le Monde, as well as other sites that posted full confidential cables, the screen says: ”Access Denied: Internet usage is logged and monitored,” according to an Air Force official whose access was blocked and who shared the screen warning with The Times. Violators are warned they faced punishment if they tried to view classified material from unauthorized Web sites.

Freedom of the press is sacrosanct, except when it isn’t. For those keeping track at home, please file this one under “Censorship That Would Never, Under Any Circumstances, Happen in the United States.”