How WikiLeaks Beat the Mainstream Media
In the final scene of Sydney Pollack’s 1976 thriller, Three Days of the Condor, the whistleblower-hero played by Robert Redford crows to his nemesis, a high-up CIA rogue plotting to take over Middle Eastern oil fields, that he’s revealed the plot to the New York Times. The CIA man (played by Cliff Robertson) retorts, “How do you know they’ll print it?” The movie ends ambiguously with the suggestion that Redford’s character better not celebrate yet because the CIA just might be able to stop the presses.
It was a decade when whistle-blowers were full of sublime faith that the Times and the Washington Post were the premium channels for big leaks—even (or especially) any that Washington would want plugged. In accord with the consensus, Pollack believed that the news media were “the pipeline” for exposing government wrongdoing, “whether it’s Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers, or Watergate with Bernstein and Woodward.” But Pollack’s directorial instincts got the better of his faith. His doubt about the inevitability of happy endings was astute cinematically, even if the reality suggested at the end of the film proved several decades premature.
So how did we get to a time when the whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning delivers his troves of data not to an established institution of traditional journalism, but to an independent website run by a gifted ex-hacker computer whiz? And Edward Snowden delivers his own to a left-wing Guardian columnist and an independent filmmaker? How come the “47 percent” videotape that sank Mitt Romney’s campaign went not to the Times or the Post—or ABC, CBS, NBC, or CNN—but to Mother Jones?
What Pollack said about the news media of the 1960s and ’70s was right: They were no longer confining themselves, as they had in preceding decades, to the stenography of power. They were willing, even eager, to expose official crimes. To get those stories, they opened unorthodox channels. The slaughter of several hundred South Vietnamese villagers by American troops storming through My Lai in 1968 was a story broken, a year and a half after the fact, by a freelance reporter with radical connections who sold it to a tiny news service, which in turn sold it to major papers. Soon enough, photos of the massacre appeared in one of the leading mass media of the time, Life magazine.
In 1971, when the consummate whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg failed to convince White House and elected officials to release the Pentagon’s official history of the Vietnam war, he turned to a trusted reporter at the New York Times and to other major papers, which proceeded to write them up and publish the documents in bulk. The Times defied the White House all the way to the Supreme Court, and it, the Post and 15 other papers published copious internal evidence of government duplicity and wrongheadedness drawn from thousands of pages, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, entrusted to them by Ellsberg.
To Seymour Hersh and Woodward and Bernstein, to be skeptical did not mean affecting a saucy attitude and asking barbed questions at press conferences. It meant starting from dissenting assumptions about how powerful institutions really worked.
The following year saw the uncovering of the Watergate scandals by two Washington Post reporters—neither of them, it should be noted, coming from political beats and therefore neither of them dependent on ingratiating themselves to the usual officials. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein knew where to look for well-informed sources. The plot thickened when the reporters stirred the pot—and with the hearty support of editors and a gutsy publisher, they had sponsors who encouraged them to stir some more.
Seymour Hersh, Neil Sheehan and others at the Times who published the Pentagon Papers, and Woodward and Bernstein were stars of a golden constellation of journalism—not because of the organizations they worked for but because they were smart, dogged, indefatigable, skeptical, and professional in the highest sense. Groundbreaking revelations might be reported by offbeat journalists operating on a shoestring but with keen noses for significant facts. Or they might be disclosed by intrepid reporter-employees backed by wealthy news organizations. It didn’t matter. To them, to be skeptical did not mean affecting a saucy attitude and asking barbed questions at press conferences. It meant starting from dissenting assumptions about how powerful institutions really worked.
A critical bar was set. Other news organizations grew limber, and ready to pounce. The model of exposé through the direct transmission of unsavory facts through mainstream media worked as recently as 2004, when news of torture at Abu Ghraib, originating within the US military itself, went public through CBS’ 60 Minutes and, well, Seymour Hersh again, now writing for The New Yorker.
So why is it that the recent whistleblower-leakers delivered their revelations not to journalism’s mainstream titans but to parajournalists—freelancers and outsiders running independent operations outside?
Edward Snowden has an explicit answer. For his article in The New York Times Magazine, reporter Peter Maass asked Snowden (via encrypted email): “Why did you seek out Laura [Poitras, the independent documentary filmmaker] and Glenn [Greenwald, Guardian writer and longtime Salon columnist], rather than journalists from major American news outlets (N.Y.T., W.P., W.S.J. etc.)?”
Snowden faulted those outlets directly:
After 9/11, many of the most important news outlets in America abdicated their role as a check to power — the journalistic responsibility to challenge the excesses of government — for fear of being seen as unpatriotic and punished in the market during a period of heightened nationalism. From a business perspective, this was the obvious strategy, but what benefited the institutions ended up costing the public dearly. The major outlets are still only beginning to recover from this cold period.
Snowden knew that, in 2004, the Times had delayed publication of a report by two of its top national security reporters, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, about secret warrantless eavesdropping on Americans undertaken by the National Security Agency. Risen and Lichtblau protested the delay, but to no avail. When the Times did run the article, the reporters noted:
The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.
Snowden was in a hurry, and he had reason to be: by leaking the NSA database he was risking his safety and freedom. He did not want to be arrested before his material could get published. He did not want to dangle for a year waiting for the Times to clear the material to its own satisfaction (and, likely, the NSA’s). Snowden told Maass that by contrast, Poitras and Greenwald had revealed themselves to be “fearless…even in the face of withering personal criticism,” Poitras having even been put on a no-fly list for her investigative pains. They were outsiders, but outsiders with both upload and download capacity—outsiders, therefore, with inside connections, who could publish broadly and get Snowden’s story out.
I asked Bill Keller, the Times’ executive editor during the period that included the delayed James Risen-Eric Lichtblau NSA report and the Manning-WikiLeaks disclosures, about Snowden’s explanation. Snowden “somewhat overstates the case,” Keller told me. He acknowledged that after Sept. 11, “there certainly was a national patriotic surge, and I can’t claim journalists were immune.” Notoriously, the Times fell for Bush’s WMD claims. There were also, Keller said, articles that Times editors “held up not from fear of the White House or the reactions of our advertising market, but rather because the White House dangled exclusives [as a quid pro quo]. The Bush people were very clever at this.”
Bill Keller, the former Times' executive editor, acknowledged that after 9/11, 'there certainly was a national patriotic surge, and I can’t claim journalists were immune.'
Keller says that “by 2005, when we covered NSA eavesdropping stories…there was a sense that we had something to make up for.” By 2010, when the Manning-WikiLeaks material came up—offered by the Guardian to the Times—“there was never a moment’s hesitation” about the Times running it, he said.
Nevertheless, to Snowden—and by extension to Greenwald and Poitras—any delay would have been unacceptable. In fact, at one point during Snowden’s negotiations with Greenwald and Poitras, while the Guardian was making up its mind what to do, they threatened to take the piece elsewhere. Under pressure, the Guardian made haste.
Manning was even more cagey about offering his trove of documents: when a Washington Post reporter told him she’d have to consult with a senior editor, he was repelled. Manning told his military tribunal that he offered his stash to the Times, albeit weakly—he left a voicemail message and, getting no callback, moved on to WikiLeaks.
Keller notes what Manning gained by proceeding through outside channels:
I’m pretty sure that if we had been the sole recipient we would not have shared Manning’s gift with other news organizations. That is partly for competitive reasons, but also because sharing a treasury of raw intelligence, especially with foreign news media, might have increased the legal jeopardy for The Times and for our source. So our exclusive would have been a coup for The Times, but something would have been lost. By sharing the database widely — including with a range of local news outlets that mined the material for stories of little interest to a global news operation — WikiLeaks got much more mileage out of the secret cables than we would have.
But something might also have been lost when WikiLeaks dumped not only the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs but 251,287 State Department cables into public view: the anonymity of human rights advocates, dissidents and informers whose names were revealed. WikiLeaks’ commitment to keeping those secrets was less than perfect. Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko later bragged that unedited WikiLeaks cables concerning activists in that country enabled him to finger them. Assange’s representative in Eastern Europe, a Holocaust-denying anti-Semite weirdly named Israel Shamir, later made the bizarre assertion, on the far-left American website Counterpunch, that in Belarus "the people were happy, fully employed, and satisfied with their government." According to the Guardian, Assange also passed State Department cables to state-supported Russian media, and offered to sell others. Still, the impact of these leaks is unclear: No hard evidence has surfaced of unredacted WikiLeaks revelations leading to the Taliban targeting Afghan informants or activists outed as a result of the cables dump.
Chelsea Manning endured months of solitary confinement before her trial, and now languishes in an Army brig waiting for the gender-reassignment surgery she will likely never get. Snowden is in exile in Russia, and Assange may be facing a sealed indictment in the United States should he ever try leaving the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has lived in a converted powder room for the past 16 months.
The more secrets there are, the bigger the databases that pile up. The bigger those databases become, the more they cry out to be shared among agencies in both the public and private sectors. The more insiders, the more likely that one of them will get out her whistle, blow it, and look for amplification.
Meanwhile, secrecy, leaks, and crackdowns create their own positive feedback loop: Max Frankel, the former executive editor of the New York Times, who was instrumental in the publication of the Pentagon papers, shrewdly observed after the WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables: “The threat of massive leaks will persist so long as there are massive secrets.”
And the more secrets there are, the bigger the databases that pile up. The bigger those databases become, the more they cry out to be shared among agencies in both the public and private sectors. The agencies require more 22-year-old Army privates (like Manning) and 29-year-old sysadmins (like Snowden) with security clearances. “The government creates its own predicament,” says Keller, “by imposing so much security and then over-sharing secrets.” A system of massive surveillance requires immense expertise to run. To this end, millions of recruits must be vetted and cleared by overworked contractors. The more of these insiders the government manufactures, the more likely that one of them will get out her whistle, blow it, and look for amplification. Reacting clumsily, the government acts, as Keller puts it, “more aggressive and more punitive,” against leaking—and also more secretive, giving another turn to the screw.
So the irregulars will keep coming. The very scale of the developing surveillance state mass-manufactures the desire to leak evidence of outrages. Decades elapsed between Daniel Ellsberg’s leak and Private Manning’s, but only a few years separated Manning’s from Snowden’s.
How will future leaks find their way into the wider world? Could the Times itself open its doors and outdo WikiLeaks and similar or wannabe parajournalists? In 2010, at Columbia’s Journalism School (where I teach), Bill Keller spoke of the Times setting up its own lockbox, à la WikiLeaks, where whistleblowers could deposit raw data, encrypted, without fear of exposure. In the end, the paper decided against it. “There were too many complications,” Keller told me later. “It’s very hard to vet stuff that comes in over the transom. If it’s anonymous, all the more so. And we thought this was not where the future of investigative journalism was. Most investigative reporting results from a relationship of trust [and] piecing things together. What WikiLeaks and Snowden released are great stories, but they’re also unusual. As a general matter, great investigative pieces don’t come in on a thumb drive.”
That may be changing. The dumping of huge troves of data has moved from a cottage industry to a complicated ecology, which makes room for outsiders and for globalized combines of insiders alike. On September 28, Poitras even shared a front-page Times byline with Risen for a story about NSA surveillance. Even as big media selectively open their doors, parajournalism is probably here to stay. From the whistleblowers’ perspective, the mainstream media are too stodgy, too hidebound, too slow, too preoccupied, to rely on. So it’s left to freelance institutions—parajournalists like WikiLeaks—to take up the slack.
The next wave of whistleblowers may end up starting with big data dumps and revelations of law-breaking programs released first to the parajournalists, then passed on to mainstream media that find the story too big too pass up. This route from outsider to insider journalism proves effective for blasting stories around the world now that mainstream papers are willing to overcome their hypercompetitiveness by arranging cross-border collaboration. For a whistleblower, what offers greater reach than a story released more or less simultaneously by the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País? Whether they like it or not, then, for the foreseeable future, the outsider WikiLeaks and the insider New York Times, having carved out a division of labor in the same industry, are fated to coexist. The legal risks for whistleblowers have never been greater, but their ability to move their revelations around the world is growing.
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