BOB GARFIELD: On July 25th, the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks released more than 75,000 classified documents related to America’s ongoing war in Afghanistan and caused a sensation, resulting in weeks of press coverage. On October 22nd, WikiLeaks released some 400,000 documents related to the war in Iraq and, at least in the United States, was pretty much a one-day wonder. The New York Times offered a comprehensive overview of the data on the day of its release. According to its public editor Arthur Brisbane, The Times took a reputational risk in doing business with WikiLeaks but quote, “inoculated itself somewhat by reporting independently on the organization.” What The Times did along with reporting on the data was to report on the instability of WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange. All in all, in the U.S. the leak was merely a ripple in the torrent of U.S. election coverage. However, according to Gavin McFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism and a visiting professor at City University in London, the leak made a big splash globally because it was full of big news.
GAVIN McFADYEN: These documents show that there were 15,000 new previously unacknowledged civilian deaths. There were 681 civilians killed at checkpoints, and there was also 17 new killings associated with Blackwater.
BOB GARFIELD: One element of the story that did get a fair amount of play here was the degree to which the U.S. military turned a blind eye to abuses or atrocities committed by the Iraqis. What hasn't gotten a whole lot of attention is how that revelation played in Iraq.
GAVIN McFADYEN: A small minority of political groupings and small presses dealt with that issue, but the main political groupings were much more interested in the evidence of U.S. killing of civilians. They all talked about it as an example of how the United States probably didn't belong there any more. There was something else which didn't get a lot of coverage in Iraq, and that was in Abu Ghraib itself. In 2009 there were 112 new cases of abuse. You could see there’d be many reasons why the Iraqi authorities would not be keen [LAUGHS] on a lot of that information, though they were certainly very keen on the notion of the killing of civilians by U.S. forces.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of the documents suggested that these abuses went right to the office of Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki, who was said to have directed a counterterrorism unit that targeted Sunni areas. What was the government’s response to the revelation?
GAVIN McFADYEN: The initial response was disbelief and denying the credibility of the sources, and they were never discussed in a way in which action in any form could be taken to stop this stuff.
BOB GARFIELD: The coverage in The New York Times of the latest release was quite substantial. It was page one, with a whole mess of sidebars going kind of point by point through the list of appalling revelations. And then the story kind of petered out. Did it peter out in Europe, as well?
GAVIN McFADYEN: No. The Guardian has had pieces every day, often front page pieces. Le Monde I know has done the same thing. Spiegel has had a smaller number because they're a weekly publication, but they're still doing it. And I think the Swedish and Dutch newspapers have had really substantial coverage, starting this week.
BOB GARFIELD: Why do you suppose that it did not get traction in the States but has continued to hold the imagination of audiences beyond our borders?
GAVIN McFADYEN: There have been major events on the press here, but it hasn't stopped at least The Guardian and Le Monde from continually reporting the event. As the WikiLeaks story developed, Margaret Thatcher was in the hospital and there was a lot of worry that if she died in the middle of this there would be no coverage at all. The Guardian has consistently been publishing almost daily every new event, every bit of new analysis, and that in itself creates the traction.
BOB GARFIELD: This raises an interesting philosophical question. At what point does it become the duty of a news organization to hang onto a story even if it believes that the public is uninterested, bored and unprovoked by the revelations?
GAVIN McFADYEN: On the whole, if you felt a story, for example, was of enormous consequence, it would be quite wrong not to run it until people understood what was involved in it. And one of the classic cases in British journalism was the thalidomide scandal. That story ran week after week after week on the front page of The Sunday Times. And though it didn't have any initial traction, by the end of the 12th week it had enormous traction. And I think that tended to be a model by which we tended to work here, and television the same thing. I made programs, for example, about asbestosis and how it affected miners and the working population. One program didn't do it. We had to make seven programs over four months. And that had the effect. We got the laws changed. If you care strongly enough about something, if you feel there’s a powerful moral purpose in pursuing it, then you'll pursue it.
BOB GARFIELD: Gavin, thank you so much.
GAVIN McFADYEN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Gavin McFadyen is the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism at City College of London. So why was domestic coverage of WikiLeaks so thin? We asked Clint Hendler of The Columbia Journalism Review.
CLINT HENDLER: The Afghanistan logs were about a war which we're still very much having a policy debate over and the tension’s a lot more focused there. It doesn't surprise that when the documents come out now that they didn't get as much coverage as the Afghanistan ones.
BOB GARFIELD: The Afghanistan story was kind of two stories, right? It was about what was revealed in the documents but a lot of it was about the unauthorized leak itself, no?
CLINT HENDLER: WikiLeaks, you know, has been knocking around as an organization for a few years. You know, they made a big splash with the release of a helicopter video that showed the death of two Reuters employees at the hands of U.S. forces that the Pentagon had declined to release, despite Freedom of Information Act requests. But after that, their next big thing that really shook things up and drew attention in America were these Afghanistan logs, and here you had the largest leak of undisclosed information in history. And we had to talk about who WikiLeaks was, who Julian Assange was, what the law was about this, where these documents might have come from, what the impact would be on the course of the war. With the Iraq documents, in many ways we already had had our discussions and our debates about some of the most important issues raised by the leak itself.
BOB GARFIELD: Something else that seems to have kind of corrupted the news ecosystem here is the focus on Julian Assange himself. He’s under investigation for possible sexual assault by the Swedish government. He has seen a lot internal strife in his own organization.
CLINT HENDLER: There have been, you know, some high profile defections from the organization. There are lots of stories that center around the operations of WikiLeaks that actually have an impact on the effectiveness and stability of the organization, and those strike me as worth covering. At the same time, is the exact right time to do that the day when the organization does release important documents that tell us something about these very [LAUGHS] important foreign policy questions? I definitely think there is a time and a place for it and an amount of space for it, and I'm not sure that we're always getting it right.
BOB GARFIELD: What underlies all these questions I'm asking you is where’s the follow-up on the fairly significant stories that were at least hinted at by the release of this huge trove of documents?
CLINT HENDLER: Considering that many of the documents spoke to things that newspapers had already spent a lot of time talking about, maybe this coverage that it got, as flawed as it may have been, was follow-up to things that we wrote about three or four years ago. We just went through a major election. We spent months and months talking about the greatest issues facing the nation. I don't remember hearing about Iraq. It’s sad. The war’s still happening. There are still soldiers dying, and Iraq is still suffering from the repercussions of it. But it’s not the story it once was.
BOB GARFIELD: Clint, thank you.
CLINT HENDLER: You’re welcome, Bob. Thanks for having me.
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BOB GARFIELD: Clint Hendler is a staff writer for The Columbia Journalism Review.
"Dance Yrself Clean"
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