Wikileaks and The New York Times behind the scenes

“Open Secrets” an e-book by The New York Times


On the 16th of February I had a chance to attend a lecture by David McCraw, Vice President of The New York Times Company. He spoke specifically on the Wikileaks issues, his personal involvement in the case and his paper’s concerns behind the scenes.

Here is this lecture:

It was interesting to see the kitchen of this famous newspaper and learn what worried their staff at that time. As a lawyer, David McCraw was concerned about the legal issues of disclosing the secret documents: was it illegal to simply possess these documents, not to mention publish them? The Espionage Act of 1917 regulates this type of activity. Meanwhile it is vague and blurry, and thus was not clear whether it concerns the media or not. The most fascinating thing is that although the government may go to court, but it cannot stop the media from releasing the materials. So basically, it will be too late: they cannot prevent the publication.

Later on I found an article in The New York Times that described the story presented by McCraw. Here is what there was written on this matter:

From consultations with our lawyers, we were confident that reporting on the secret documents could be done within the law, but we speculated about what the government — or some other government — might do to impede our work or exact recriminations. And, the law aside, we felt an enormous moral and ethical obligation to use the material responsibly.

David McCraw and The New York Times were also worried of the Board of Directors’ reaction to all this. Individual liberty of the involved correspondents was at stake as well. Some of the involved personnel lacked American citizenship and therefore there were some concerns regarding the possibility of their visas. It was not clear whether journalists could travel without restraint and will not be arrested while crossing the border.
All these issues were at stake. However, The New York Times decided to start working with the materials and its “source” Julian Assange. We already know that the NYT, The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel were working together with the materials, and each of the news source emphasized on different aspects of the documents. As David McCraw pointed out: “make sure you create a source relationship with your source: they’re not your partner. So you keep distance.” Indeed, Julian Assange had his own agenda in this story.

Assange and his team did not censor the first portion of the documents, thus creating a threat for those mentioned in documents. The New York Times cut out the names of people from their articles and refused to directly link to the website of Wikileaks. Later on, all these disagreements escalated into a big conflict between the “source” and the media. So that Assange decided to avoid working with NYT. Meanwhile The Guardian kept on sharing the documents.

David McCraw mentioned several interesting things about the Wikileaks and their deduction policy:

• The first pile of documents Wikileaks did not deduct the names at all. As a result they received a barrage of criticism for doing so thus endangering people’s lives;

• The second pile was over deducted: they erased all the names with the help of some “robo- redactor”. And it stopped making any sense – since even the names of top officials in the US were gone;

• The third time they did not deduct the names but the documents first appeared in the media and after on the Wikileaks website.

And here are the three concerns of NYT in regard to freedom of the press

• Freedom from government control
• Freedom from libel
• Protection of sources

And all this raises the questions whether Assange should be protected by the same freedoms. How can one distinguish between Assange and the NYT reporter? How are they different?

Yet it is clear that Julian Assange would not achieve so much without the help of the media. It was media that dug deeper and made stories out of the document’s pile. In this regard new technologies did not substitute the traditional media. The article by NYT has provided a portrait of Assange: nervous even hysterical threatening governments. Too many people consider him a hero. But is there anything heroic about him????? He did not risk his life stealing the documents and did not even provide his own analysis of the data. He simply delegated all this to other people and organizations. And now he is an “imprisoned hero”. I clearly see no logic here.

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