No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post
The latest document dump from WikiLeaks would seem to be one of those massive, stop the presses, drop everything and throw all available resources at it stories that dominates news cycles for weeks on end. One of the first revelations was of Frago 242 (a Guardian story describes a frago as “a ‘fragmentary order’ which summarises a complex requirement”), which directed soldiers not to investigate war crimes that did not directly involve members of the coalition. There are reports that US soldiers may have engaged in war crimes themselves. There are hundreds of thousands of documents and they will take a long time to digest.
The New York Times featured it Saturday. On Sunday it did so again; this time with an accompanying character assassination of Julian Assange, which Glenn Greenwald promptly took apart. While Greenwald focuses on the author of the smear - London Bureau Chief John Burns - in a sense it is a somewhat narrow critique.
It seems similar to how some activists focused their ire on Rahm Emanuel when initiatives appeared to get frustrated by the White House. After all, the hard charging, abrasive chief of staff who draws fire (conveniently) away from the president is a stock character in Washington. Emanuel was hardly novel. More importantly, he was not calling the shots. Anyone put off by him should focus at least as much on his employer.
The same goes for Burns. Whatever journalistic sins and malfeasance can be hung on him (and Greenwald catalogs them brilliantly) the fact is, his employers give him the platform. We should spare some scrutiny for them. For instance, look at the front pages of the Times on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There is nothing about the new documents at all.
One of the reasons Watergate became huge was because there was a drip, drip, drip of revelations splashed on the front page over an extended period of time. It kept the issue before the public, allowed it to get knowledgeable and engaged, and gave the story enough momentum to survive the hostile reaction of the political establishment.
Obviously there are differences with WikiLeaks, the most salient of which may be professional jealousy. Media outlets love to get the scoop and hate being scooped. The Washington Post had its own reporters digging away at Watergate, so it reflected well on the paper to have their work played up. Times editors may not be as fired up about trumpeting someone else’s revelations.
Still, it takes some kid of extraordinary lapse in editorial judgment to allow such a phenomenally important story to be given such short shrift. Iran’s state media outlet, PressTV, has shown how to cover a story like this without letting institutional vanity get in the way.
It has simply assigned people (identified only by initials - apparently no one gets the star treatment there) to go through the documents and write up what they find. And what they are finding is jaw dropping: assassination, torture, a variety of abuse (some of it stunning), rape, the list goes on. It is news - relevant, compelling news because it paints a far grimmer picture of what is happening there than the government has been willing to acknowledge. The Times fancies itself the newspaper of record; if its editors believe that, why can’t they swallow their pride, have a couple reporters roll up their sleeves and dig in?
Even if it is considered common drudgery (though it is also the sort of thing newsrooms used to romanticize as shoe leather reporting) why not try to connect some dots? See what implications there for what we already know, or how it might change what had previously been reported. That kind of deep analytic work is ideally suited for a company with deep resources and archives. The Times could advance the story and put their imprint on it.
For whatever reason, they have decided not to pursue it. The front page scans above give a reasonably good picture of what they currently consider most newsworthy, and there is a gigantic hole right in the middle. Since they also help set the tone for American news coverage, a horrible deficiency like this does not exist in a vacuum.
Happily, we live in an era when news sources from around the world are available. It is now possible to consult faraway outlets, even those that are derided as government propaganda organs. As in cases like this, sometimes they will be superior to American media. Engaged citizens can usefully mix in a few minutes with a Press TV or an al Jazeera on a regular basis. Perhaps they can improve their understanding of the world by catching up on the news that US outlets have concluded is not fit to print.