Did NYT Tarnish ‘Journalistic Reputation’ of WikiLeaks?

Bill Keller

Bill Keller wrote an expose of Julian Assange’s personal hygiene.

I give the New York Times credit for continuing to cover the Bradley Manning trial when so many other outlets have stopped doing so. But reporter Charlie Savage’s recent piece (7/11/13) included a curious take on the testimony of Harvard professor Yochai Benkler.

After explaining some of the attacks on WikiLeaks coming from U.S. government officials, Savage wrote (emphasis added) that

such claims were amplified, Mr. Benkler noted, by commentators on Fox News and in the Weekly Standard, among other outlets, who sharply criticized WikiLeaks. Its journalistic reputation was also undercut by two prominent articles published by the New York Timesan opinion column by Thomas L. Friedman and a lengthy first-person magazine article by Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor at the time–portraying the group as anarchists and “a secretive cadre of antisecrecy vigilantes.”

But Benkler’s point was not that WikiLeaks‘ “journalistic reputation” had been undercut; he was criticizing the Times for maligning WikiLeaks.

What was in that Tom Friedman column? He wrote (12/14/10) that while he “learned some useful things” from WikiLeaks, he doesn’t

want to live in a country where any individual feels entitled to just dump out all the internal communications of a government or a bank in a way that undermines the ability to have private, confidential communications that are vital to the functioning of any society. That’s anarchy.

Setting aside the matter of Tom Friedman being the arbiter of anyone’s journalistic reputation, it’s not clear that the column undercut anything–especially considering that his description of what WikiLeaks was doing did not square with the way the outlet actually released information.

As for that lengthy Keller piece (1/30/11), it is perhaps best known for breaking important news about the personal hygiene of WikiLeaks‘ Julian Assange, as told to Keller by Times reporter Eric Schmitt:

“He’s tall–probably 6-foot-2 or 6-3–and lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention,” Schmitt wrote to me later. “He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.”

If journalistic reputations are the issue, there are some ways to compare the Times and WikiLeaks. As Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald (8/22/12) noted:

On the very same day WikiLeaks released over 400,000 classified documents showing genuinely horrific facts about massive civilian deaths in the Iraq war and U.S. complicity in torture by Iraqi forces, the New York Times front-paged an article purporting to diagnose Assange with a variety of psychological afflictions and concealed, malicious motives, based on its own pop-psychology observations and those of Assange’s enemies (“erratic and imperious behavior,” “a nearly delusional grandeur,” “he is not in his right mind,” “pursuing a vendetta against the United States”).

And Keller’s piece referenced one controversial episode in the Times‘ reporting on the WikiLeaks‘ diplomatic cables.  The Times (11/29/10) reported  that “Iran has obtained a cache of advanced missiles” that could have “the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe.”

But as FAIR reported at the time (FAIR Blog, 11/29/10), the Times was dramatically overselling the story.  The paper decided, at the request of the U.S. government, not to publish the cable in question. WikiLeaks did, though, and anyone who read it could see that the Newspaper of Record was omitting some key facts–namely, that Russian intelligence officials were not convinced that Iran purchased any such missiles, or even that they existed. Subsequent reporting by the Washington Post and others cast further doubt on the Times‘ scoop.

And there has also been criticism of how the Times‘ treated some of the other WikiLeaks revelations–downplaying revelations about civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially when compared to how newspapers like the Guardian were reporting the same evidence. 

But back to Yochai Benkler’s testimony at the Manning trial. This is what he said (transcript courtesy of the Freedom of the Press Foundation):

Tom Friedman, probably the best known op-ed writer of the New York Times, wrote an op-ed in which he talked about there being two major threats to the world: one was China and the superpower, and the other was super-empowered individuals like WikiLeaks, and compared those to the major threats to the world. New York Times editor Bill Keller published an 8,000-word New York Times Magazine description of the events–in which the same WikiLeaks and the same Assange that the news reporting part of the organization eight months earlier had called a muckraking site, a small online site that provides information that governments and corporations would like to keep quiet–suddenly started to describe WikiLeaks as a secretive cartel of antisecrecy vigilantes. He described Assange in terms of, like, badly smelling as though he hasn’t bathed. Repeatedly tried to denigrate the professionalism.

It would seem to me that Benkler’s point was that outlets like the Times were in some ways mimicking the attacks on WikiLeaks that were coming from right-wing media and U.S. politicians, in an attempt to “denigrate” an outlet that the Times had previously praised.  When Savage writes about WikiLeaks‘ reputation being “undercut” by his paper, perhaps he means that as a critique of the Times. But I don’t read it that way. If anyone’s “journalistic reputation” has suffered as a result of the WikiLeaks stories, it was the New York Times‘.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.