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Point Austin: Call Them Irresponsible

'Statesman' editors contribute to journalism ... by attacking honest journalists

By Michael King, Fri., Dec. 17, 2010

Note to the Statesman editors: When you're about to condescendingly lecture another media outlet – not to mention your endlessly abused readers – on the nature of journalistic responsibility, shouldn't you take the minimal trouble required to make certain the central premise of your homily is accurate?

It appears the answer is no.

Tuesday's Statesman featured a thoroughly pompous editorial ("WikiLeaks fails responsibility test") on the alleged responsibility of journalists to make certain that anything they publish has been subjected to "measured, careful decisions about what we publish and what we don't." After congratulating the independent website WikiLeaks for its "ability to procure documents the U.S. government seeks to keep secret," the editorial goes on to denounce the organization for what it supposedly does "post-procurement." "What it does is publish them – all of them – on its website," the editors report. "This seems to be done without a critical eye toward whether any of them carry the potential to endanger entire nations or specific people."

What an "irresponsible" act that might be – if it were true. Unfortunately for the Statesman editors, it is quite false, as the editorial writers might have determined by an even cursory check of the website itself or – if that proved too burdensome or terrifying – by reading their own newspaper. For example, on Dec. 3, the Statesman published an Associated Press story ("WikiLeaks, 5 major newspapers collaborate"), which reported, "Unlike the earlier disclosures by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of secret government military records [in fact, only its first release of Afghanistan documents], the website is releasing only a trickle of documents at a time from a trove of a quarter-million, and only after considering advice from five news organizations with which it chose to share all of the material." Among those five is The New York Times, a frequent Statesman originator for stories and presumably a source that the editorial claims has "shown an ability to make prudent decisions concerning sensitive information."

On Wednesday – having been called on their misrepresentation by several readers (including me) – the editors published a supposed correction ("Indis­criminate disclosure has flaws") that was little more than an excuse to take another shot at WikiLeaks, with an outdated quote from anti-secrecy advocate Steven Aftergood condemning WikiLeaks as among the "enemies of open society." Aftergood's June statement preceded by several months the WikiLeaks publication of the diplomatic cables the editorial was actually addressing, and the editors somehow missed Aftergood's later statement (to Foreign Policy) concerning the redacted release of Iraq war documents: "Wikileaks itself has acknowledged the necessity of withholding certain portions of the documents that might endanger individuals who are named in them."

Hypocritical Foolishness

As of Wednesday morning, the WikiLeaks site had published 1,532 of the 251,287 diplomatic cables made available to it by unidentified sources; that's roughly an "indiscriminate" 0.6% of the total. As AP reported (in the Statesman) and the WikiLeaks site confirms, specific cables have been released primarily in relation to stories published about them in one or another of the organization's media partners. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told the British Guard­ian (as repeated in the Dec. 3 States­man): "The cables we have released correspond to stories released by our mainstream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories .... The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organizations to make sure the process is working."

Whatever else one might say about this process, it corresponds in every detail to the "responsible" process the Statesman editors fulsomely praise in "the mainstream media"; unsurprisingly so, since it is being performed by the same major newspapers (in the U.S., England, Spain, France, and Germany) that the local daily relies on for so much of its wire service copy. The Statesman holding its editorial nose at WikiLeaks is hypocritical, silly, and, frankly, perpetuating a falsehood.

Journalists and Criminals

Aside from the flagrantly irresponsible States­man charges against WikiLeaks, it's amusing to document just how badly the editors do their research. For regular readers of our monopoly daily, the question further arises whether people so demonstrably incompetent should be trusted to report to us, as they put it, "what is going on, especially what is going on among the people who spend your tax dollars." Instead it should run this editorial through their PolitiFact meat-grinder and have it officially declared "Pants on Fire."

But editorial incompetence is the least of it. Among many other things, WikiLeaks has documented thousands of unacknowledged civilian deaths in Iraq; U.S. military indifference to torture by its allies; massive corruption in Afghanistan; a secret, illegal U.S. war in Yemen; and a multistate campaign for war against Iran – all revelations that should be the responsible obligation of public journalism. As a consequence, the organization has been attacked as "treasonous" and "terrorist," had its Internet access and finances officially undermined, been threatened with prosecution in various hysterical forms, and – in what ought to cause at least a raised eyebrow of empathy among alleged journalists – been subjected to explicit threats of assassination by officials and other public figures here and abroad.

Meanwhile, for a decade, the U.S. government has engaged in two undeclared and illegal wars (and illegal covert war elsewhere); its officials have been directly implicated in criminal deception to promote those wars involving the slaughter of thousands and the devastation of entire nations; those officials have advocated and enabled widespread torture in violation of national and international law – all without an effective whisper of potential prosecution or even serious investigation, and with certainly nothing of that "irresponsible" implication emanating from the "measured, careful" and "prudent" mainstream media.

What is the contribution of the Statesman editors to this ongoing international situation of enormous consequence? A flagrant misrepresentation of the actions of WikiLeaks, a prissy defense of government secrecy and media collaboration with that secrecy, and a whiny presumption that only the "mainstream media" is sufficiently thoughtful and prudent to review information and make the "measured, careful" decisions concerning what is suitable for the rest of us to read or know.

Thanks, but I'll take my chances with the folks at WikiLeaks, who haven't yet forgotten what it means to be a responsible news source.

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