07/30/2010 01:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

All the News that's Fit to Leak

The coverage of the WikiLeaks controversy has become a debate over the precise shade of morally gray to assign to WikiLeaks's possible endangerment of Afghan informants. The discussion of WikiLeaks's moral responsibility with regard to disclosure threatens to obscure another journalistic ethics problem brewing, and this one is black and white and read all over.

This week on The New York Times op-ed page, Andrew Exum, an Afghan analyst for the Center for a New American Security, rejected the idea that there was any substantially new or revelatory information in the leaked documents. He was particularly dismissive of WikiLeaks founder Justin Assange's claim that the new WikiLeaks material is the modern day Pentagon Papers.

This is ridiculous. The Pentagon Papers offered the public a coherent internal narrative of the conflict in Vietnam that was at odds with the one that had been given by the elected and uniformed leadership.
The publication of these documents, by contrast, dumps 92,000 new primary source documents into the laps of the world's public with no context, no explanation as to why some accounts may contradict others, no sense of what is important or unusual as opposed to the normal march of war.

Exum is correct that these new documents haven't blown open a government cover-up or revealed a new dimension of the conflict, but they have done a great deal to illuminate the workings and weaknesses of a different part of our political infrastructure.

In the months to come, there will be plenty of investigations into how WikiLeaks got its hands on this data (though presumably, after the last leaker got nabbed, the new one will be trying to keep a low profile), and security consultants will be scrambling to prevent this kind of breach again. In my mind, however, WikiLeaks's most impressive accomplishment wasn't its penetration of the Pentagon but its manipulation of the media.

Just a month ago, The New Yorker's profile of WikiLeaks's founder Julian Assnage highlighted his difficulty in getting the media to pick up the stories he was breaking.

In 2007, he published thousands of pages of secret military information detailing a vast number of Army procurements in Iraq and Afghanistan. He and a volunteer spent weeks building a searchable database... Assange hoped that journalists would pore through it, but barely any did. "I am so angry," he said. "This was such a [bleeped for your protection] fantastic leak: the Army's force structure of Afghanistan and Iraq, down to the last chair, and nothing."
On the principle that people won't regard something as valuable unless they pay for it, he has tried selling documents at auction to news organizations; in 2008, he attempted this with seven thousand internal e-mails from the account of a former speechwriter for Hugo Chávez. The auction failed. He is thinking about setting up a subscription service, where high-paying members would have early access to leaks.

The new Afghanistan leaks were released in advance to The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel under an embargo, and they ended up as the front page story in every paper. The New York Times ran plenty of front page articles on Afganistan before the WikiLeaks scoop and continues to give the war front page coverage (today's article is about the resurgence of the Taliban in Baghlan province), but this is the one that managed to cross over from policy wonks to prime time punditry.

In our data-glutted media, news has become eclipsed by the story behind the story. For cable news, the WikiLeaks story wasn't just another dog-bites-man snorefest about the unending and unchanging slog through Afghanistan; it was a heist story. The promise of smuggled documents and clandestine meetings gets our adrenaline up but is no promise of quality journalism. In fact, our hunger for an inside view can lead us to privilege the viewpoints of anonymous sources rather than focus on the facts, as Clark Hoyt, the former public editor at the NYT pointed out in several columns.

During the height of the Journolist debacle, Jonathan Strong of the Daily Caller denounced journalists who wanted to keep their emails off the record as indulging in the "deepest hypocrisy." The job of a journalist, he declared, is "to make what is said privately public." In fact, the duty of a journalist is to create an informed citizenry.

The vision of investigative journalism preached by Strong is out of step with the realities of the 21st century. In an information age, we can't continue to operate on the assumption that everything interesting is covered up. In fact, most investigation is really a matter of properly aggregating and analyzing information that is already public. The willing silence of the media on crucial issues can be as stifling as any government censorship.

The true calling of journalists is to be muckrakers, to dredge up data and make it understandable and relevant. WikiLeaks is quickly learning how to spin the media as expertly as any other highly placed anonymous source, but, ultimately, they should be regarded as just another resource among many. The New York Times and other media outlets need to find a way to get the turmoil in Afghanistan into the 24-hour news cycle permanently, without relying on stunts like the WikiLeaks embargo. Otherwise, we'll continue to be stuck with a media more fascinated with itself than its stories.