Thursday, 29 July 2010

It's pretty clear that Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder and government bete-noir, doesn't much respect the media in the developed world. He's said so explicitly at least once in an interview - of which several have appeared over the past month or so.

Now, The Daily Beast reports that Assange is exchanging barbs with the ostensible newspaper-of-record, The New York Times, which received a copy of its latest leak - over 90,000 pages of classified US military documents known as the Afghan "war logs" - in advance of WikiLeaks releasing them to the public.

The NYT did wrong when it contacted the US administration before publishing its stories on the leaked documents, says Assange. And the NYT also omitted a link to WikiLeaks within the story - which would be unusual practice for the paper.

For its part, the NYT says that WikiLeaks releasing the documents to everyone "had potential consequences that I think anyone, regardless of how he views the war, would find regrettable". People could get hurt, the paper's editor Bill Keller, says.

Assange released the information to three mainstream news organizations because we had the wherewithal to mine the data for news and analysis, and because we have a large audience that would take this seriously. I think the public interest was served by that.

Of course the newspaper is in a different position, vis-a-vis both the administration and the public, from WikiLeaks. The paper has both gravitas and a need to control or manage perceptions of either bias or responsibility. It's a corporation, not a renegade activist outfit. It has a reputation built over decades that it needs to protect in order to assure its future profitability.

But Assange's criticisms both here and earlier make the paper look staid and conservative, as though its reputation is more important than the truth. That should be a perception that the NYT worries about since its place in the public sphere is cemented in its ability to uphold the public interest. That's what a newspaper of record is meant to do, regardless of how unstable and contested a term such as "the public interest" is.

Government condemnation of the leak can combine with the paper's controlling comments to further bolster WikiLeaks' standing in the community as the true upholder of the public interest. It's a fraught exercise for the NYT, and one that its corporate board will be taking a hard look at in the coming weeks.

It'll be interesting to see if any further mentions of the blue appear in the press.

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