A Liberated Press and WikiLeaks: Bulwarks Against Claims of "Victory" in Afghanistan

Not so long ago, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could count on American journalists to support his campaign to publish secret documents that governments didn't want the world to see. But just three years after a major court confrontation that saw many of America's most important journalism organizations file briefs on WikiLeaks' behalf, much of the U.S. journalistic community has shunned Assange -- even as reporters write scores, if not hundreds, of stories based on WikiLeaks' trove of leaked State Department cables.

--Nancy Youssef, "In WikiLeaks Fight, U.S. Journalists Take A Pass" McClatchy Newspapers, January 9, 2011

Just hours before President Obama gave his State of the Union address, his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, offered what amounted to his own 'state of the war' address ... The general's assessment, in the form of a letter to troops, outlined a fight in which the military machine [in Afghanistan] had gained the edge or was on the cusp of doing so on every front.

--Alissa Rubin,

U.S. Is Gaining in Afghanistan, General Writes,

New York Times, January 25, 2011

Julian Assange distrusts mainstream media for "playing along." Assange: We are free press activists. --interview with Steve Kroft, CBS 60 Minutes, January 30, 2011

The Press

Recently, Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers laid bare the less-than-sterling record of the way in which mainstream American news media have dealt with the phenomenon of WikiLeaks' release of the national security state's diplomatic and military secrets. She in effect shamed the American media by citing a December 15 Australian Newspaper Editors group letter to the Australian Prime Minister that posited the idea that for America--heralded as a beacon of press freedom internationally--to prosecute someone for publishing secret documents, it would have a chilling effect throughout the world:

Any such action would impact not only on WikiLeaks, but every media organization in the world that aims to inform the public about decisions made on their behalf. It is the media's duty to responsibly report such material if it comes into their possession. To aggressively attempt to shut WikiLeaks down, to threaten to prosecute those who publish official leaks, and to pressure companies to cease doing commercial business with WikiLeaks, is a serious threat to democracy, which relies on a free and fearless press.

Indeed, with some exceptions, it has been left to foreign journalism organizations to offer the loudest calls for the U.S. to recognize WikiLeaks' and Assange's right to
under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. Youssef noted several embarrassing examples of timid and tamed American journalism:
  1. The freedom of the press committee of the Overseas Press Club of America in New York City declared Assange "not one of us;"
  2. The Associated Press, which once filed legal briefs on Assange's behalf, refuses to comment about him;
  3. Bob Woodward of the Washington Post told a Yale University law school audience in November that WikiLeaks' "willy-nilly" release of documents was "madness."

The executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, has come forward on PBS' NewsHour and in the pages of the NYT Magazine to explain and defend his decision to publish vetted, shared-with-Washington, copies of WikiLeaks' classified trove, arguing that "for evidence the government is highly selective in its approach to secrets, look no further than Bob Woodward's all-but-authorized accounts of the innermost deliberations of our government." Bill Keller,

Dealing with Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets,

New York Times Magazine, January 30, 2011. Times reporter John Burns' critical and snide commentary from London, about WikiLeaks, stands in contrast.

Youssef quoted media critic Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com:

Bob Woodward has probably become one of the richest journalists in history by publishing classified documents in book after book. And yet no one would suggest that Bob Woodward be prosecuted because Woodward is accepted in the halls of Washington.

But Woodward

is no more entitled to publish classified information than some random person out of the phone book.

The War

Of course, the sticky-wicket is that American journalists too often befriend the government and seek its approval for their work. Yet, a free press is the only institution standing in the way of terribly misleading government claims that the United States is "winning" or making progress in Afghanistan -- after ten years of war and death and deficits! On Afghanistan, the battle between the government and the fourth estate has a long way to go.

Don't look for more than a few members of the House or Senate to tell you how bad things are going, after ten years. Don't look for the president, or his secretaries of defense and state, or General Petraeus, to speak candidly in public about a losing cause.

No. Instead, the public is subjected to macho claims that the Taliban is losing -- and that al Qaeda has been severely weakened -- but that nevertheless our country will have to stick it out until 2015, at least! At times, alas, some of the best reporters write -- and comment on the air -- as if they are compiling official histories of the conflict ; or as if they are drafting a book to be published by a major house. A kind of incremental journalism that does not get too far out in front.

If it were not for leaks -- yes, WikiLeaks -- that the mainstream press cannot ignore, alongside superior investigative reporting from McClatchy Newspaper reporters in the field -- as one example -- how to challenge the government line when national security is invoked? How to be informed about "the facts on the ground" in a democracy?

But major players in the mainline media -- like Woodward and Burns -- obviously want to control the narrative so that it does not radically digress from the official Washington storyline; only on the margins. Not unlike Judith Miller peddling government falsehoods about WMD in Iraq in the pages of the New York Times in 2002-2003, they would sacrifice keeping the public holistically informed on the altar of seeking insider access.