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State-run Iranian media beats the NY Times on WikiLeaks reporting

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.

Reader Comments (4)

Good piece, I enjoyed it. Re: your headline: "State-run Iranian media beats the NY Times on WikiLeaks reporting." Whenever I see a reference to Iran's media, it's always almost preceded by the words:"state-run." I have no problem with this, but I do think it'd be a good idea to always precede references to the likes of "The New York Times," with the words: "corporate-run."

And which of the two is more accurate, one might ask: state-run or corporate-run.

That is debatable. However, in places like Iran, the ordinary people there know to take anything they read in the state-run media with a grain of salt.

Here in the U.S., a lot of people believe what they read in "The New York Times" and the rest of the corporate media. They swallow it hook, line and sinker. After all, we live in a "free" society, with a "free" press. Which I think makes them actually less informed, in many ways, than people in Iran.

Nor is the Internet the definitive solution for bringing the truth to the people. Yes, the Net is capable of accomodating many voices (like this blog). However, it is also just as easily capable of carrying lies and misinformation---as any wingnut with a computer can spew out B.S. This is why, in the era of the Internet, just as many (if not more) people are as misinformed as ever on the basic issues of the day.

October 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarc McDonald

Thanks for the comment Marc. Funny enough, I made an edit in the last paragraph right before posting; it originally read "As in cases like this, sometimes they will be superior to American ones." I figured I had already been critical enough. :)

It's a good point about the alleged greater objectivity of for-profit corporations vs. government entities. I live in the Cleveland area and about 10 years ago one of the Plain Dealer's major advertisers had a "GET A FREE USED CAR!!!" sale that literally caused a riot. It made CNN. It was huge news. There was literally not a word about it in the PD.

That's just the most obvious example I've seen, but in ways big and small large media outlets cater to those they serve and tailor their presentation accordingly. Openly declaring one's bias up front ("state run") seems bracingly honest in comparison.

October 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan

The way the Iranian press divided up the tasks was brilliant and shows how stuck in a rut we have become -- quite apart from the government and corporate influence on our media (and vice versa).

We are living in incest, at least as far as information goes.

October 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPW

Hi Dan, thanks for your comment. Say, would you like to trade links? I have already linked Pruning Shears on my site's "Blog Roundup." If you could link BeggarsCanBeChoosers.com, I'd sure appreciate it.

October 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarc McDonald

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