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WikiLeaks And The Future Of Journalism: An Interview With New York Times’ Scott Shane

Mary Slosson |
December 12, 2010 | 9:50 p.m. PST

Executive Producer

Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange Speaks to the Press (Photo Creative Commons)
Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange Speaks to the Press (Photo Creative Commons)
How, exactly, did the journalists given embargoed access to the Wikileaks secret embassy files read and analyze the quarter million cables?

Put simply: they didn’t.

The sheer enormity of over 250,000 documents means that reading each and every one is near-impossible.

A team of ten reporters working for two months straight would have to read just over 400 cables each per day – without breaks for the weekends – in order for the entire database to have been read and analyzed for importance.

“It’s impossible to sit down and read 250,000 documents,” said Scott Shane, reporter for the Washington bureau of the New York Times who covers national security and was a member of the team covering the Wikileaks embassy cables.

The Guardian was similarly constrained by staff limitations.  “At first we had one reporter, but over time we’ve added in a number of foreign correspondents and specialists,” said Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger.  “Each looked at their own area and found the cables that seemed to them most significant.”

After The Guardian passed along the leaked cables to the NYTimes, a tech team in the New York bureau created a searchable database to assist the reporters assigned to sift through the data.

Shane said he would search by keywords to find potentially explosive cables – particular names, cities, embassies, or dates on which diplomatically important events occurred.

Shane searched for cables on US-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, but no results came up in the secret cables – meaning that the information on his return to Yemen in 2006 and the United States’ subsequent authorization for the CIA to capture or kill the cleric must be classified top secret or above.

The difficulty of any one media organization – no matter how big – in sifting through a data set as large as the embassy cables highlights the limitations that media organizations face in processing huge document dumps.

One possible solution?  Crowdsourcing. 

Wikileaks has invited other media outlets to apply for access to the full cables as well.  The full cables have yet to be published anywhere on the Internet; so far only 1,400 have been posted on the Wikileaks site.

Wikileaks quite simply does not have the staff to sort through the massive datasets being leaked to them now.  While it seems odd that an organization with a founder as outspoken on the cowardice of the mainstream press as Julian Assange has been would partner with those very same media outlets to sift through the documents, it is, in essence, a partnership of necessity.

Media analyst and New York Times correspondent David Carr noted that:

With each successive release, WikiLeaks has become more strategic and has been rewarded with deeper, more extensive coverage of its revelations. It’s a long walk from WikiLeaks’s origins as a user-edited site held in common to something more akin to a traditional model of publishing, but seems to be in keeping with its manifesto to deliver documents with “maximum possible impact.”

Even that partnership is insufficient.  The latest embassy cables were given under embargo to Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, and The Guardian (who passed them along to The New York Times).

The New York Times and The Guardian worked closely together, said Shane, but cooperated much less closely with the other outlets.

“The Guardian would tell us, ‘oh my gosh, did you see this cable?’ and our team would respond, ‘no, ooh, that’s good,’ and vice versa,” said Shane.

So, even with the combined efforts of the two media outlets, it was impossible to read all the documents.  And, as neither Wikileaks nor any of the media outlets given access to the secret documents have released the full database, outside observers have yet to be given the opportunity to search and read through the full documents themselves.

All this begs the question: should more people be given embargoed access to the documents?  From smaller media publications to groups of internet freedom activists, there is an abundance of people who support the mission of Wikileaks and are searching for an opportunity to get involved and analyze the cables themselves.

* * * *

Wikileaks is, in essence, a group of idealist activists who want to make positive change in the world, said Shane, but they are constrained by minimal staff and resources.  

The group came under heavy criticism for failing to redact the names of informants who provided information in the Afghan War Logs.  While there have been no confirmed deaths resulting from the leaked documents, the group “really took a beating after the Afghan leak” over the issue.  Now they’re being much more cautious, noted Shane.

The rain of criticism that Wikileaks has received from members of the media has been “somewhat hypocritical,” according to Shane, because “they’re doing almost literally exactly what we’re doing at this point.”

If Wikileaks shares the same investigative journalistic ethos as the mainstream media, then why the backlash?

“I’ve been really puzzled by the negative reaction against open information,” Shane noted.

With allies like Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, one would imagine that Wikileaks would find more allies in the press. 

But with even bigger enemies – the United States, French, Australian, Russian and Chinese governments the most active and vocal among them – the ability of Wikileaks to continue running may seriously be in jeopardy.

“I’m taken aback by the negative, critical reception to these stories,” by other journalists, policy makers, and the lay public, said Shane.

“The difference between the nightmare scenario the administration painted and what’s really happening is stark,” said Shane.

The New York Times and The Guardian have been redacting cables before posting them to their own sites, and have then shared their suggestions with each other and Wikileaks. 

Wikileaks has consistently posted the more conservatively redacted version, according to Shane.

“The government really got out ahead of this,” with their PR attack, said Shane.  “They shaped the reception to this leak before people even read the story.”

The U.S. Department of State has been aggressively attacking Wikileaks, saying that the leak endangers lives and that Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

While Wikileaks – a rogue band of volunteer activists who have sacrificed safety and stability in the pursuit of open government – and the New York Times – the revered establishment journalism newspaper – are “not equivalent historically or in terms of philosophy,” said Shane, “in this particular project, they’re doing almost literally the exact same thing as us.”

With traditional journalists becoming increasingly adverse to losing access with officials for a good story (the negativity over Wikileaks is not the first or even the most egregious example of this – remember Lara Logan’s remarks that Michael Hastings had “never served his country the way McChrystal has” because of his critical profile of the General?), the future of journalism might lie somewhere between the nexus of old school institutions like the New York Times, with their wide readership and deep pockets, and computer-savvy and politically passionate internet activists like the rogue band of volunteers who run Wikileaks.

Media analyst David Carr calls such a relationship “unstable” but “fruitful,” a sort of “new form of hybrid journalism emerging in the space between so-called hacktivists and mainstream media outlets.” 

Only time will tell if this hybrid journalism is the wave of the future.

Reach Executive Producer Mary Slosson here.  Follow her on Twitter here.



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