Why has The New York Times come forth with reports on dealings with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks? To clarify information from thousands of diplomatic cables which would otherwise be nearly impossible for the general public to read, let alone comprehend?
That seems understandable. After all, the best news organizations are designed to examine all sides of an issue, no matter which side of the fence their ‘source’ is on. However, during the past few weeks The New York Times has been going for the jugular of Julian Assange, namely through managing editor Bill Keller’s critiques of the man at large. On January 30th, Keller authored a piece that appeared in the New York Times Magazine (“Dealing with Assange”), where he described Julian Assange as being “elusive, manipulative and volatile”. Two photos at the top of the 9-page article allude to the idea of Assange being ‘two-faced’, as one photo depicts him as a suited professional, and another with his face distorted like a Picasso painting. The article is ironic in the fact that Keller not only attacks Julian Assange for being a hacker who is too demanding on legacy news organizations, but also because he makes certain bold assumptions of the work at other newspapers. In one such passage he describes how The Guardian approacehed a particular WikiLeaks dispatch:
“We [The New York Times] buttressed the interesting anecdotal material of Pakistani double-dealing with additional reporting. The Guardian was unimpressed by those dispatches and treated them more dismissively”
Keller’s article can be seen as a type of evaluation of what the New York Times provides their readers. Yet this evaluation of what defines a ‘real’ journalist versus that of a leaker comes at a rather strange time for paper of record. Strange in the sense that they are just about to move forward with plans to launch their metered pay-wall for their website in the coming weeks. The pay-wall will allow users to attain a certain amount of content for free on nytimes.com each month while still banking off the idea that die-hard New York Times readers will pay to subscribe after that. Could Keller’s examination of Assange be a subtle plea for readers to pull out their wallets and subscribe? Press releases from The New York Times Company have failed to mention how they plan to deal with the fact that a reader can Google search any particular article on nytimes.com and read the first page for free anytime. As well, the strong possibility that a blogger might copy-and-paste or rewrite articles to post on another webpage. But that would be ‘hacker-esque’.
In addition to this, the Times has also sponsored a new documentary film (no, it certainly isn’t “Fit to Print”. However our proposals and dealings with the Times will be presented in “Fit”). The New York Times documentary is titled, “Page One”. The film focuses on the media desk at the Times. In particular, David Carr who gained quite a bit of acclaim for lashing into the Tribune Company with an article on the ‘frat-house’ culture their executives had adopted under the ownership reign of real estate mogul Sam Zell. Add to this, the Times’ in-house dealings with Julian Assange via Skype, and you have a compelling documentary. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and our team has recently been in touch with the director – Andrew Rossi.
With “Fit to Print”, it is our belief that the U.S. newspaper industry should be the topic of conversation, as we have collected a vast treasure trove of interesting perspectives and tales of industry foible, innovation and rebirth through important new independent organizations such as Voice of San Diego, ProPublica, Politico, and Investigative Voice.
There are many new independent sources for news on the web which have emerged in the past few years. The fact that we are seeing more of them spring up is what makes this an exciting time in journalism. More importantly, with these new outlets for news, they are hitting the ground running with multimedia such as video, slide-shows and social interactivity, rather than trying to play catch-up as many of the traditional news organizations have been doing in recent years. Legacy news organizations failed to invest in their digital future decades ago, and our film will detail exactly how.
Left out from Keller’s summary of how he and The New York Times approached the trove of WikiLeaks information, is the fact that Keller assigned one of their top people — David E. Sanger — to control the release of WikiLeaks material. More importantly, Keller failed to mention that Sanger, “sits as a member of the elite Council on Foreign Relations as well as the Aspen Institute Strategy Group together with the likes of Condi Rice, former Defense Secretary William Perry, former CIA head John Deutch, former State Department Deputy Secretary and now World Bank head Robert Zoellick among others”, according to TheSwash.com.
In one particular passage of Keller’s article, he makes the statement:
“Frankly, I think the impact of WikiLeaks on the culture has probably been overblown. Long before WikiLeaks was born, the Internet transformed the landscape of journalism, creating a wide-open and global market with easier access to audiences and sources, a quicker metabolism, a new infrastructure for sharing and vetting information and a diminished respect for notions of privacy and secrecy.”
This statement is true and false. Yes, the internet created a global market with easier access to audiences and a new infrastructure for sharing and vetting information. However, journalism is only now beginning to transform into a multimedia platform where anyone can contribute with an increased reach and velocity through social networking sites, video and interactivity.
When it comes to WikiLeaks, perhaps its time for Keller and the Times executives to realize that:
A) They didn’t unearth the diplomatic cables themselves (nor are there any signs that they attempted to journey on such a quest as that of WikiLeaks).
B) The New York Times chose to publish a vast majority of the cables despite breaking the specific terms requested from their source — Julian Assange — by allowing Der Spiegel (the German newspaper) to forward the Times documents Assange had banned the Times from publishing because of their hatchet pieces on Bradley Manning this past summer. This coming after Assange had ‘tested the waters’ with the Times by providing them with the first batch of information on goodwill approval.
You would think a news organization with the resources and ‘journalistic integrity’ of The New York Times would actually attempt to protect their sources. As well, spend more time examining the evidence of corruption by world leaders which has been revealed in the cables rather than writing character assassination pieces on their source. If Assange had leaked information which later proved to be false or invalid, the Times would have reason to take a closer look at his true motivations. Instead, the authentication of the cables was verified and the paper moved forward in publishing material they didn’t unearth themselves.
Its as if Bill Keller and the Times executives are so terrified by the fact that there are other independent sources for news these days, that they see the only way to reestablish their own brand is by knocking those who approach traditional media with a watchful eye. What’s even more laughable is the fact that the Times has recently created an “easy pass” portal on nytimes.com so that individuals can upload confidential information in a WikiLeaks-style fashion.
Note to Keller and Times executives: Perhaps if you spend more time unearthing hard-to-find information which is vital for maintaining government transparency and protecting our First Amendment rights, you might once again prove to be a crucial news organization worth contributing money towards.
The New York Times is and always has been a vital publication in the U.S. and abroad. We are a much safer and more enriched world with The New York Times in our lives. However, the Times is not the end-all, be-all when it comes to the newspaper industry or within journalism. Nor should it ever be.
The world is a big place. Its even bigger when we have access to the web and digital technologies which allow us to share and digest information with one-another. This is true whether you call yourself a ‘traditional’ or ‘scientific journalist’. Put your trust in the masses, not in the name-brand organizations who have become too fat for their own good and can’t admit their own hubris.