The Washington Post Column

Wikileaks busts myth about the irrelevance of mainstream media

Thank you, WikiLeaks.

I didn’t think it was possible, but Julian Assange has done it: By releasing 92,000 pages of intelligence documents relating to the Afghanistan war onto the laptops of an unsuspecting public, the proprietor of WikiLeaks has made an iron-clad case for the mainstream media. If you were under the impression that we no longer need news organizations, editors or reporters with more than 10 minutes’ experience, think again. The notion that the Internet can replace traditional newsgathering has been revealed as a myth.

To see what I mean, try reading this: “At 1850Z, TF 2-2 using PREDATOR (UAV) PID insurgents emplacing IEDs at 41R PR 9243 0202, 2.7km NW of FOB Hutal, Kandahar. TF 2-2 using PREDATOR engaged with 1x Hellfire missile resulting in 1x INS KIA and 1x INS WIA. ISAF tracking #12-374.”

Did you get that? I didn’t, at least not at first. I understand it somewhat better now, however, because the New York Times helpfully explains on its Web site that this excerpt from one of the WikiLeaks documents describes a Predator drone firing a missile at men who were planting roadside bombs.

How about this? “At 1635z TF 2Fury reported a Green on Green event at the Giro DC, VB 3591 6240. An element at the Giro DC reported that that two of the OPs IVO of the Giro DC were under SAF and DF attack.” That one is tougher, but fortunately the Guardian informs us that it’s an excerpt describing a shootout between units of the Afghan police.

Reading through the documents, you do begin to pick up the code. FOB is a forward operating base; BDA is a battle damage assessment. Yet after a while, even the summaries don’t make that much sense. Was that Predator operation crucial? Was that Afghan police battle ordinary friendly fire, or did it reflect a larger conflict? Here the Times and the Guardian can help a little, as they have reviewed the documents, passed them quickly by experts and done a bit of comparing and contrasting. This is because Assange, despite his insistence on the value of raw data, knew perfectly well that the public wouldn’t be able to make much of this stuff and gave the documents to three news organizations in advance.

Nevertheless, even these newspapers were operating under a major handicap. Because WikiLeaks imposed a deadline for publishing the material, they had no time to do any proper newspaper reporting. Had journalists been on the ground when those Afghan police were shooting at one another, or investigated even a year later, they might have discovered something interesting — perhaps that this was really a story about clan warfare, or about poor training or about nothing at all. When such a report is placed in a long list with other equally enigmatic, equally out-of-context documents, it isn’t easy to say.

But there weren’t any reporters, or any time to do real journalism, and thus the deeper context for these documents will have to be acquired in some other fashion. Eventually, historians or good investigative reporters will make sense of them, using interviews, memoirs, documentation from other sources. That will take time, money and possibly the support of the mainstream media — a magazine, a newspaper — or even an “elite” institution like a university.

Until then, the documents are nothing more than raw data. They provide “color.” They provide details. They help reinforce existing biases: The Guardian’s interactive map of the “significant incidents” revealed by these documents shows only military failures — civilian casualties, accidents — and its key has no label for any sort of success.

They give newspapers a chance to pretend they’ve got scoops. The documents might even help bring in advertising revenue. By my extremely rough count, the New York Times has mentioned the relationship between the Pakistani secret service (the ISI) and the Taliban several dozen times over the past decade. (Last September, a Times report described the ISI as “the Taliban’s off-again-on-again benefactor for more than a decade.”) Yet the Times got away with running the headline “Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan, Reports Assert” over the weekend — as if that were news.

But without more investigation, more work, more journalism, these documents just don’t matter that much. To argue, as James Fallows has, that they are significant because they will inform an ignorant public is ludicrous: If you don’t know by now that the ISI helped create the Taliban, or that civilian casualties are generally a problem for NATO, or that special forces units are hunting for al-Qaeda fighters, all that means is that you don’t read the mainstream media. Which means that you don’t really want to know.