WikiPublishers Face Their Readers

Times and Guardian Answer Questions on Leaks

The two English-language newspapers given early access to the WikiLeaks diplomatic cable dump have published two very different Q&As with readers regarding the leaks and their decisions to publish reports based on them. The New York Times’s Bill Keller, Jill Abramson, and Andrew W. Lehren respond to questions in a formal Q&A published here—the answers are lengthy, considered, and loftily home in on the citizenry’s right to know as many readers ask, “What gives you the right to tell?” The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, answers commenters’ questions more informally in the comments stream of this Guardian page. The styles, in a sense, reflect the coverage from each outlet—the stitched-up and balanced American, the stronger-voiced Englishman letting fly more freely—and there’s a certain delight in reading the editor of one of the world’s most respected papers addressing somebody called “lollercoaster.” But each has some insight, answers, and clues of what’s to come, for those poring through the dumps today. Here is a roundup of some of the more interesting responses.

From Rusbridger:

- “Embarrassing more than damaging. US diplomats are obviously going to have to regain trust and convince their sources that they can speak safely.” — responding to a question on whether the leaks would be more embarrassing or damaging to the U.S.

- “Yes, we have held back some parts of some documents… We decided early on that we should have someone who would read all the cables we wanted to use with en eye solely to sources. Not stories, sources. There are other stories which were, on the face of them, extremely interesting—but some of these were little more than diplomatic gossip. We used news judgements, the expertise of our specialists … and we spoke to our lawyers.”

- Rusbridger said he would think about contributing to Bradley Manning’s legal fund, given that the paper had profited off of his theft.

- Asked why the paper had redacted so much, in colorful terms, Rusbridger responded: “Guardian Uncle Sam’s boot licker? First time I’ve heard that.. I don’t actually think it would be right to post every single without redaction. There are, for example, some sources in repressive countries who would clearly be at risk. We don’t have the resources (or the will) to try and redact 250k documents.”

- “I think the impact of the material would be diminished if we attempted to ‘dump’ it all too quickly. As it is, we’re already carrying stories on page 9 which on any other day of the year would lead the newspaper (see this morning’s paper!)…. Stay with it…see whether there’s still nothing surprising by the end of next week.”

- “There was one reference to myself —a cable from the Tel Aviv Embassy in 2008 quoting the Jerusalem Post, which itself was quoting something I had said at a public meeting in London.

From Keller, Abramson, and Lehren:

- “Quite a few readers are uncomfortable with the idea that a group of editors—unelected editors—can decide to reveal information that the government wants kept secret. Sometimes we’re uncomfortable with that, too. We have as much stake in the war against terror as anyone. Our reporters travel in dangerous places to report on these subjects, and we have had members of the Times family injured, kidnapped and killed in pursuit of the news. So the thought that something we report might increase the dangers faced by the country is daunting and humbling—and not just a matter of theory for us. When we find ourselves in possession of government secrets, we think long and hard about whether to disclose them…

… We get to decide because America is cursed with a free press. I’m the first to admit that news organizations, including this one, sometimes get things wrong. We can be overly credulous (as in some of the reporting about Iraq’s purported Weapons of Mass Destruction) or overly cynical about official claims and motives…. A free press in a democracy can be messy.”

- “…while it is enlightening to see these observations in official cables, for the most part they enlarge rather than upend our understanding of complex foreign relations. For example, The Times has reported on numerous occasions that Iran’s Arab neighbors share America’s (and Israel’s) worry about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. The cables dramatize the depth of their concern, but the fact of their concern is not revelatory.”

- “WikiLeaks is not a ‘media partner’ of The Times. We signed no agreement of any kind, with WikiLeaks or anyone else. In fact, in this case—our third round of articles based on documents obtained by WikiLeaks—we did not receive the documents from WikiLeaks. Julian Assange, the founder of the group, decided to withhold the material from us, apparently because he was offended by our reporting on his legal and organizational problems. The London newspaper, The Guardian, gave us a copy of the archive, because they considered it a continuation of our collaboration on earlier WikiLeaks disclosures. (The Guardian initially asked us not to reveal that they were our source, but the paper’s editor said on Sunday night that he was no longer concerned about anonymity.)”

- “We agree wholeheartedly that transparency is not an absolute good. Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity. Yes, the articles were based on a larger data set. The four articles in today’s paper are just the beginning of our series on the cables, which will continue in the days and weeks ahead. Future articles will examine in greater depth a variety of subjects, including China.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,