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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: How significant are leaked Afghan war documents?

Saturday, July 31, 2010 | 2:45 p.m. CDT; updated 11:11 a.m. CDT, Sunday, August 8, 2010

Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: It’s been called bigger than the Pentagon Papers.  And in terms of volume and variety, the more than 92,000 documents contained in the variously called “Wikileaks” or “Afghanistan War Logs” released this week are truly massive. But are they more significant? Will they serve to alter public opinion about the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan as Daniel Ellsberg’s famous leak did for the Vietnam War? And what about the manner in which it was unveiled: sent a month in advance to three of the West’s most prestigious news organizations – The New York Times, Guardian and Observer in London and Germany’s Der Speigel – for sifting and analysis. Then released to the world via the Internet as the Sunday editions of the three media giants hit the streets. Give us your impressions of this story.

Don North, vice president of Military Reporters and Editors, veteran international broadcast journalist, Washington, D.C.: Well Byron, it’s an interesting case of timing here. The House of Representatives here in Washington were about to debate a bill for $37 billion to continue the Afghan conflict when the Wikileaks were put out. I don’t think it was designed to coincide with the House debate, but it certainly came in very well for debate on Tuesday this week. I think it was The New York Times said that Wikileaks was vigorously debated in the House of Representatives, but in fact I believe it was only about two hours of debate mentioning the Wikileaks before they passed the measure and gave another $37 billion by a vote of 308 to 114. I don’t call that very vigorous debate.

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Scott: Did it come too late?

North:  I think it reflects unfortunately on the level of interest in pursuing this war here in Washington — that this massive leak of documents would not bring a much greater reaction in Congress.

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor, TheAtlantic.com, Washington, D.C.: I think it is worth noting that Daniel Ellsberg himself said in The New York Times this week that he feels like the Pentagon Papers didn’t change a single vote in Congress. I think perhaps the impact of this event will take a few months to fully show up. 

Scott:  There is an eyewitness character to this that is a little grittier and is a little closer to reality in the minds of most readers. Simon, we’re fortunate to have you on the show as one of the Guardian editors who worked with this material prior to this release. Could you tell us more about that adventure?

Simon Rogers, editor, Guardian Datablog and Datastore, London: Well basically we had the data come by a circuitous route and mainly investigative reporters were involved at an early stage. Lots of small events add up to a very big story for us. First, we had to make it easier for our reporters to navigate. The reporters were trying to pick out individual stories and find out the key things they wanted to find out. Secondly, we had to think about how we would present this data to our readers. I suppose one of the most interesting parts of this for us was that people talk about changing journalism and changing the way that people do reporting.

Scott: And you did create some fantastic materials to allow not only your colleagues, but journalists elsewhere and the public in what you published on this wonderful website in the Guardian story.

Rogers: We weren’t just going to publish all of the logs because of the security implications, and we would be in a position where we were naming names and all that kind of stuff. In terms of data, it is a bit of a dream because you can map everything very easily. With these data you could press a start button, and it would go through 2004 to 2009 with the events as it happened, and we complemented that in the newspaper because of course you can’t do that in the paper, with every single ID that went off located across a big map of Afghanistan, what happened where and what kind of time period. It was interesting to work out what things were best online and what things would work best in the paper. Another thing we did of course is we published as much of the raw data as we felt comfortable with. So we published 7,500 ID details and our reporters selected another 300 odd events which we thought was significant that they were writing about. We published that in stage two, so that readers could download it and do stuff with it themselves.

Scott: Let me break ask Alexis Madrigal to chime in. He was saying before we went on the air how accessible this is. Alexis, in one of your Atlantic posts this week, you said that Wikileaks may have just changed the media too. Could you expand on that a little bit?

Madrigal: Sure. I think what is really fascinating about this is trying to figure out what Wikileaks is in journalism. You have the Times saying this was a source relationship, saying that they essentially treated Wikileaks like any other whistleblower, or I almost want to say a parajournalistic organization. One of our commenters on the Atlantic actually said that what Wikileaks reminds him of most is Craigslist. The kind of mostly volunteer, totally decentralized, classified ad service. The interesting thing about that is traditional newspapers depend a lot on classified advertising and Craigslist is blamed for usurping that business and in fact hurting the amount of reporting that could by done by breaking the newspaper business model. And now a very similar type of organization springing up actually, in this particular case, has aided in investigative journalism.

Scott: When you go on their website they list their location as “everywhere.”

Madrigal: Right. Exactly. Jay Rosen, a kind of controversial figure at NYU, had a really interesting point in this case. He interprets “everywhere” to mean that they are kind of a stateless journalism organization. I think there are some interesting parallels between Wikileaks and the way that they kind of do journalistic battle and some of the other conflicts around the world between stateless actors and nation states. What’s really fascinating is the interplay between the international powerhouses like The Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel with Wikileaks. I think by giving those organizations the data thoroughly they recognize the value traditional news reporters bring to a story like this.

Scott: Don, the White House and the Pentagon reactions to all this seem sort of damped down for those of us who remember the good old days of the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon Administration. Is this a change of tactics?

North: It is interesting that the reaction from the Pentagon and the White House has been somewhat muted. Some journalists here have suggested that they are not unhappy to see these leaks come out as it might provide a rationale for less engagement in the future that some people see as inevitable. I didn’t see anything startlingly new in the Wikileaks, which I think says something favorable to journalism coverage for Afghanistan even though it is has been greatly diminished by economic situations and the phase-out of many news organizations. But the revelations on corruption, the heat-seeking missiles, the SIS (intelligence) meeting with the Taliban, the civilian casualties, have all been reported and quite covered before. Simon, I am particularly impressed by what the Guardian has done with these Wikileaks. I’ve read quite a bit of the raw material and it really is in need of analysis. I am glad to see we journalists aren’t being phased out. There is still room for us to analyze these things and experts to help decipher some of these leaks.

Scott:  Simon Rogers of the Guardian, let’s go back to you and ask you to respond to Don and Alexis’ comments.

Rogers: I think that one of the most interesting things just in terms of our working process was just how important the specialist reporters were. For instance we have a guy called Declan Walsh who has been in Afghanistan for a long time so he had a real expert view. So he would look at the report, say it might be a report about Pakistan involvement and say: ‘Well, I know about this already.’ We needed that so we didn’t just have a breathless, “isn’t this exciting” approach. We tried to bring a kind of analytical guide to whether the reports were right or not.

Scott: Suppose our audience wanted to go on Wikileaks and look at the raw material of the reports, Simon what would you recommend they do? Is there a sort of lodestone to getting into that mega spreadsheet?

Rogers: We tried to look for specific events, specific attacks that we knew about. One of the things that Wikileaks has done, you can look at events by region, by severity, the events where most people died. I guess what we did, is we just tried to reduce it down for people so that … we felt more comfortable with the reports we were putting out. We don’t want to be accused of endangering our soldiers’ lives and our intelligence sources lives. There are a number of caveats with the data in the sense that, for instance, there are columns in the data which record casualties, and they just seemed totally haphazardly recorded. I guess because the stats are by the people on the ground and that was quick as possible. You have to be careful, you have to be aware of that when you are forming an analysis on that.

Scott: Alexis you’ve run barefoot through some of this and if you were going to link your readers to some of this as you do, what kind of guidelines are you using?

Madrigal: Well you know it’s tough. Let me describe a little for what the spreadsheet is like for readers if they have only seen the distilled covering. Essentially, it’s the largest spreadsheet I think I’ve ever seen and has incredibly large chunks of text in some places, no chunks of text in others. There are all kinds of different columns. As if you took a government form and just put it all directly into a spreadsheet … As Simon noted the only real numbers are the sort of killed in action numbers. It was kind of random sample therefore we could use that in some ways, and I think right now it is really hard to know under certain circumstances whether things were or weren’t recorded. So honestly again I guess I would pivot back to the idea of traditional news organizations being able to provide context and analysis. I write on technology all the time. I formerly work for Wired. I still think that in this case you needed and wanted a big newsroom that could pull together a lot of resources, a lot of context and a lot of deep knowledge of places and people in order to make any sense of this … Maybe Wikileaks highlights that there is some value in having everybody under the same roof because you can actually get everybody together at once and actually sort some of these things things out. 

Scott: Let me ask Don North about whether all of this will change how journalists deal with the White House and the Pentagon.

North: I don’t think it is going to change Pentagon policy, which, since Vietnam has moved more and more toward military secrecy. I think most of these Wikileaks should have been released to the press long ago. They are generally low-level documents, after- action reports. We, as the American people should have access to these more immediately. I’m afraid its probably going to act in another way and make the Pentagon even more guarded, which is unfortunate, because that again is going to fuel more organizations like Wikileaks to go around the Pentagon press office.

Scott: It seems to me the Pentagon Press office has a responsibility to help clear the fog of war.

North: Knowing the way the way the Pentagon thinks and recognizing the high degree of secrecy, often makes it more difficult to guard actual info that should be kept confidential. I’m not optimistic they will take this in a wise way. 

Scott: Would you give us the view from London? What has been the reaction of the British government and public?

Rogers: The government has lamented the release of the documents. It has been a muted reaction. The media has jumped on the story and every couple of days we hear about soldiers being killed. The war logs really do shine a light on what its like to be there and also how often civilians get caught in the crossfire. There wasn’t a big smoking gun, but there were indicators of how well the war is going.  Things like the rise of IED attacks, the rise of surface-to-air missiles. I think those things have become interesting questions for us in the future.

Scott: And of course, there’s more to come. Wikileaks promises to release about 15,000 more documents — with names redacted to protect those mentioned — in a few days. The Afghanistan War Logs may not be the Pentagon Papers, but they do represent a new approach to the ancient tradition of leaking secret information. The mysterious “first international news agency without a nation” has certainly caught the attention of the journalism world.  Likewise the political and military leaders of the U.S., U.K., Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. How will the online audience — citizens of the Internet universe all — react? You get the feeling many more blockbuster data dumps are on their way.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall, and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus at the MU School of Journalism, was the moderator of this weekly radio program “Global Journalist.”  It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.  Consult the show’s archives at this site for podcasts of other recent shows.

 

 

 


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