Telling the Story of WikiLeaks

Julian Assange“Scientific journalism.” That is the phrase WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange uses to describe what he does. By posting source documents directly on the Internet, readers no longer need to rely on the journalists’ interpretations. Instead, they can read the evidence for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

The digital age may have changed the way we exchange information. But one thing that blogs, Facebook, and Twitter have not changed is the centrality of storytelling in making that information meaningful. This was the problem with the thousands of documents posted on the WikiLeaks website in 2010. Despite constituting the biggest leak in history, the military reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the world did not, in themselves, tell a coherent story. This is where the newspapers collaborating with WikiLeaks played their role. They made meaning out of the documents by providing context and interpretation. Each newspaper provided a different emphasis and narrative arc–depending on its politics, national affiliation, and overall worldview.

What emerged was not one, but many stories, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and about U.S. and world diplomacy more generally.

Although numerous accounts of Julian Assange and his organization appeared throughout 2010, the full story of the WikiLeaks phenomenon had yet to be told. By the end of the year, stories about the leaked documents no longer dominated the headlines. With whistleblower Bradley Manning in solitary confinement for the indefinite future and Assange under house arrest awaiting possible extradition to Sweden on sexual misconduct charges, the newspapers that collaborated with Assange regrouped to tell the definitive story of WikiLeaks itself.

In late January, The New York Times released Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy, its first ever eBook. WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, available from The Guardian in both print and digital editions, followed a few days later. Despite their titles and timing, the main value of these books does not lie in their in-depth analysis of American war and diplomacy as revealed by WikiLeaks. Nor, for all the attempts at exposé, does it lie in juicy. behind-the-scenes details of Assange’s dealings with the mainstream press. Instead, these books are valuable for what they reveal about the newspapers themselves. As with the war logs and cablegate, readers learn of the many ways to tell the story of WikiLeaks and that the story of these stories is perhaps the most important story of all.

The Ideological Argument against Ideology

In the promotional video for Open Secrets, Times executive editor, Bill Keller, explains that his misgivings about WikiLeaks began as early as February 2010, when the organization released a 2007 video of an Apache helicopter shooting at what turned out to be two Reuters journalists. WikiLeaks’ way of editing the footage to emphasize the brash killing of innocent civilians sent Keller an early signal that Assange and his outfit were propagandists – and not journalists.

Keller goes on to convey his pride over the Times’ handling of the WikiLeaks documents in the introduction to Open Secrets:

I was proud of what a crew of great journalists had done to fashion coherent and instructive reporting from a jumble of raw field reports, mostly composed in clunky patois of military jargon and acronyms. The reporters supplied context, nuance and skepticism.

Keller then describes his favorite piece, in which veteran Times correspondent C.J. Chivers took the dispatches from one U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan and “stitched them together into a heartbreaking narrative.” As this description attests, Keller affirms that journalism is not simply the act of reproducing material from sources but of putting that material into a narrative. In other words, there is no such thing as “scientific journalism.” And the Times reporting is no exception.

As this example epitomizes, much of Open Secrets is a thinly veiled, at times rather contradictory defense of mainstream journalism, and specifically of the New York Times. It is intended to remind readers that the Times is still the source for “all the news that’s fit to print.” Critical to this effort is the idea that the Times is somehow above the ideological fray, in contrast to both Assange and The Guardian, which Keller refers to in the book’s introduction as “openly left-leaning.”

Although he suggests that the Times has no ideology, Keller makes a point of establishing the paper’s U.S. interests and principles. He describes his colleagues’ personal stake, as New Yorkers and Americans, in U.S. national security and Western liberal values. He furthers this sense of the Times as a protector of Americans and American values through the detailed descriptions of meetings with the White House in advance of publication. Keller notes that he did not abide by all of the administration’s requests. Yet the scenes with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke paint a picture of chumminess between the Times and senior foreign policymakers not unlike that between the administration and Bob Woodward, another journalist who made a career out of being the establishment’s official conduit for leaks.

Readers outside the United States will have to forgive the domestic politics on display. As though in response to a long history of derision by the right as the newspaper of the liberal establishment, the Times seems to have adopted the same strategy as the Obama administration, fending off criticism from the right in that ever-elusive quest to gain the support of the much-coveted center.

The Times’ depiction of its relationship with the White House mirrors its reporting on the war logs and cablegate–echoing, reinforcing, and lending support to the administration’s official line. Although his paper expressed deep skepticism about the strategy in Afghanistan and provided some critical reporting on the extent of torture in Iraq, Keller explains that the Times deliberately chose not to emphasize civilian deaths in its reporting on the Afghan war logs. He claimed that that aspect had already received ample attention. The Obama administration was surely pleased with this decision, as it was with the story about pressure from Arab countries for the United States to attack Iran, which administration officials played up in press conferences and media appearances. Another story on Iran headlined “Meddling Neighbors Undercut Iraq Stability” failed to mention the U.S. role in destabilizing Iraq. A story on the Pakistan intelligence service’s covert support of the Taliban reflected a similar historical amnesia by leaving out the history of CIA funding the very same forces during the Soviet occupation.

Both The New York Times and the Obama administration seem to agree on the potentially dire consequences of Assange’s decision not to redact the names of sources and collaborators from the Afghan war logs. Although WikiLeaks should have redacted those names, there is not yet reported evidence that anyone has been harmed. Keller and the Obama administration both fail to acknowledge the vast number of Iraqi and Afghani civilians killed as a result of these wars. As Ron Paul asked in his defense of WikiLeaks, “Which has resulted in the greatest number of deaths: lying us into war or WikiLeaks revelations?”

The Gold Standard or Tabloid Journalism?

It has become fair game to mock and disdain Assange for his megalomania and preoccupation with celebrity. Open Secrets further fuels this sentiment through psycho-pathological assessments of Assange. Much is made of Assange’s rootless childhood. His hippie single mother moved them both across Australia dozens of times and instilled his distrust of authority. The chapter on Bradley Manning similarly dwells on his psychological alienation as a result of his homosexuality and childhood in a small conservative Oklahoma town. These psychological analyses diminish both men, effectively undermining their critique of the U.S. military industrial complex.

Even as these profiles pathologize Assange and Manning’s blanket mistrust of authority, they drum up mistrust of Assange’s own power. Through descriptions of Assange’s domineering management style and fallouts with subordinates, the leader of WikiLeaks becomes in effect a parable of corrupt rule: the leaker who plugs leaks against his own organization, the anti-authority man who abuses his own power and embodies authority. These character assassinations are reminiscent of the conservative backlash against Al Gore, which labeled him hypocritical for flying around the world and using too many lights in his public efforts to address global warming. In addition to being cheap shots, such personal critiques overstate the influence of individuals who attempt to challenge a system and understate the power of the system being challenged.

This is not to say that the personal backgrounds and lives of Assange and Manning are irrelevant. Partly because Assange’s sexual antics have become so central to his fate, it is impossible to tell the full story of WikiLeaks without a reliable account of what Assange actually did to the women who accused him of rape. The women were fellow travelers of WikiLeaks who participated in a conference in Sweden that featured Assange. One of them had offered to host Assange in her apartment. Reading the seamy details behind their allegations—such as the mystery of whether Assange deliberately tore the condom and who’s to blame—is a bit like reading some strange amalgam of Sherlock Holmes, The National Inquirer, and the letters to sex psychologists in Seventeen magazine. One cannot help but notice that this style of tabloid journalism does not quite fit the image The New York Times tries to project of itself with this book.

The op-ed commentary section in the last half of Open Secrets contains the most interesting and least manipulative writings, precisely because it belies the coherent narrative that precedes it. Like The New York Times, several commentators similarly attempt to position themselves as sound centrists against the extremes on both the left and the right–as though calling Bush a war criminal and calling for Assange’s head are equivalent. The most compelling commentaries are those directly contradicting or raising subtle questions about Keller’s narrative. David Brooks believes that the diplomatic cables should not have been published at all “because they destroy trust.” Derek Leebaert critiques the personalism of the leaked cables as a reflection of a larger American tendency to focus on the personalities of leaders rather than structures and systemic issues. In an early attempt to take stock of the leaked cables, Eric Alterman observes, “There is no single narrative to control,” so the story of WikiLeaks ends up being about secrecy. WikiLeaks, he concludes, both raises the potential importance of news organizations as the provider of a narrative and lowers it, by giving the public direct and instant access to the narrative’s sources.

The Novel as History

After reading The New York Times’ generally hostile assessment of WikiLeaks, I was looking forward to reading The Guardian’s take. Anyone who compared the two newspapers’ reporting on WikiLeaks would expect their books to be quite different. In certain respects, however, they are quite similar.

WikiLeaks is written by David Leigh, The Guardian’s investigative editor, and Luke Harding, its award-wining foreign correspondent. The introduction is by the paper’s senior editor, Alan Rusbridger. Like Open Secrets, WikiLeaks promises to reveal the inside story of its dealings with Assange. More so than The New York Times, it attempts to fashion a coherent story out of the raw data. Leigh and Harding narrate the story in the fashion of a conventional novel. The events are arranged in loose chronological order stitched together through the voice of a single narrator and the direct dialogue of key players. The opening lines exemplify the book’s vivid detail and well-choreographed suspense:

Glimpsed in the half-light of a London evening, the figure might just have passed for female. She emerged cautiously from a doorway and folded herself into a battered red car. There were a few companions—among them a grim-visaged man with Nordic features and a couple of nerdy youngsters. One appeared to have given the old woman her coat. The car weaved through the light Paddington traffic, heading north in the direction of Cambridge…By 10PM they had reached the flatlands of East Anglia, a sepia landscape where the occasional disused sugar factory hulked out of the blackness.

The woman, we learn a few paragraphs later, was not a woman after all. She was Julian Assange en route to the mansion where he is currently under house arrest, awaiting the outcome of his extradition hearings. The neo-noir style of this passage and of the book more generally is clearly modeled on the authors’ observation that Assange’s story has the makings of a Stieg Larsson novel.

The promise of juicy behind-the-scenes details dominates WikiLeaks’ framework and marketing strategy. Once revealed, many of the details, particularly those of Assange’s dealings with The Guardian, turn out to be decidedly less compelling than a dime-store thriller. The story of Assange brokering an exclusive deal with The Guardian and the Times only to break that deal and share information with the papers’ rivals is not so much a juicy potboiler but a dreary case of industry haggling.

In other less tabloidesque ways, though, the novelistic lens serves an important purpose by painting a richer, more three-dimensional portrait of the people behind WikiLeaks and the controversies in which they became embroiled. The profile of Assange, in particular, provides a useful point of contrast between Open Secrets and WikiLeaks. Although WikiLeaks also describes Assange’s mercurial and tempestuous personality, it does not boil it down to mere psychopathology. The Guardian’s narrative includes a much more nuanced sense of both Assange’s personal and political convictions. It also includes lengthier quotes, allowing the reader to get a better sense of how Assange sees the world.

Readers who have been following WikiLeaks will be familiar with the oft-quoted passage from Assange’s blog in 1999 in which he observes that “the more secretive or unjust an organization is the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its planning coterie.” But they will find some less reported and less conspiratorial ideas as well: “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outsider notices in the west today. The Western world has lost its civic courage.” As Assange noted in this letter to his list serve, these lines were originally written by one of Assange’s personal heroes and the much beloved anti-Stalinist writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Like Open Secrets, WikiLeaks tells the story behind the alleged rapes. Although Assange still comes off as a sleazy womanizer, the narrative is neither an indictment nor a whitewash. With extensive quotes from the court transcripts, WikiLeaks creates a richer and more layered dialogue than Open Secrets, exploring complicated questions about the powerful sex appeal of a “dangerous” man, the use and abuse of power in sexual relations, and the limits of the justice system in being able to fully account for these things.

Similarly, the WikiLeaks profile of Manning paints a more nuanced picture, drawing from Manning’s words to tell part of his story. WikiLeaks quotes extensively from the email exchange between Manning and Adrian Lamo, in whom whistleblower confided about the leak before Lamo turned him into the authorities. These exchanges convey not only Manning’s emotional instability but also his incremental realization of the injustices being committed by the U.S. military. Manning’s description of watching the 2007 Apache video and then comparing it to the news reports affords a glimpse into the epiphany that seemed to offer him only one choice. At the same time, Manning grasped the problem of the sheer quantity of the data he had leaked and worried that it would not have the impact he desired: “There’s so much…It’s impossible to read all quarter million and not feel overwhelmed and desensitized.” Though Manning’s sexual orientation does figure into The Guardian’s narrative, it is invoked not to portray Manning as a troubled soul. Rather, it serves to remind readers of the military’s unjust (and now repealed) “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

As with The Guardian’s original reporting, the book’s chapters on the war logs and cablegate provide a valuable contrast to Open Secrets. The Guardian’s emphasis on civilian deaths in Afghanistan is the most obvious difference, reflecting the greater disparity between the two papers’ attitudes toward the war and the senior policymakers who wage it. The Times offers a picture of American senior policymakers being pulled deeper and deeper into a quagmire: the war is tragic and the policymakers guiding it are tragic heroes who deserve some degree of sympathy. The Guardian takes a more critical stand, exposing the contrast between the optimism fed to the public and the realities on the ground. Within this framework, Afghanistan is not a quagmire but an intentional stalemate. The duplicitous policymakers are less deserving of sympathy than scorn.

Here, and in assessments of the U.S. military-industrial complex more generally, The Guardian’s editors are perhaps closer to Assange than they are to The New York Times. This ideological proximity makes it easier to see Assange as a descendent not of the early 20th-century anarchist tradition, but rather of the early 20th-century muckraker tradition. Along these lines, Rusbridger gives WikiLeaks credit for its commitment to transparency and the rights of a free press. Instead of insisting that Assange is merely a source, The Guardian acknowledges WikiLeaks as a journalistic enterprise, one that reflects the changing landscape of journalism in the digital age. Assange may not be a “scientific” journalist. But he is, as Rusbridger explains, part of an emerging form of hybrid journalism: an “editor/source” who represents a “new breed of publisher intermediary.”

Mainstream Press and WikiLeaks Converge

One key narrative thread in both books is WikiLeaks’ slow maturation into something like a legitimate journalist who learns how to deal with the mainstream press and then creates its own model on how to practice its craft. But the very existence of Open Secrets and WikiLeaks represents the other side of that narrative — the story of a mainstream press trying to adapt to the digital age that WikiLeaks is so much a part.

The newspapers’ decision to publish their books electronically, and for a time exclusively on Kindle and Nook, makes this clear. As I scrambled to download Kindle and type my credit card number into the Amazon website, I was reminded of how easy and free it was to access the WikiLeaks site. Accessing The Guardian’s book was even more of a hurdle. Though WikiLeaks was available on Kindle to readers in the UK, initially it was only available in print in the United States. If purchasing The New York Times eBook forced me to contemplate the corporate domination of the putatively populist Internet, then purchasing The Guardian’s eBook made me acutely aware of the extent to which the corporate internet marketplace is not the borderless, globalized utopia it is made out to be.

The WikiLeaks phenomenon of 2010 is not just an important moment in the evolution of the mainstream press. It is also an important moment in the evolution of the hybrid form of journalism Assange represents. Assange is changing his approach and is no longer letting the “raw data” speak for itself. Like the mainstream press, he is becoming a narrator of sorts—spinning material into his own coherent story. Assange’s recent interview on 60 Minutes counters the stories about WikiLeaks told by others. Assange’s memoir, for which he will get a million pounds, is due out next month.

This past December, performance artist/political commentator Robert Foster, who has recounted the story of WikiLeaks in a series of satirical news videos, said: “The history of these events will be written next month.” Over the coming months and years, such histories will continue to be written. But, as Foster concludes, “what they say is up to us.”

Hannah Gurman is an assistant professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.