Doubtless, comparisons of Sunday's WikiLeaks.org publication
of tens of thousands of Afghan war documents will be made to the The New
York Times' publication of the Pentagon
Papers, a RAND study of Vietnam-era documents of 1971. But, aspects of the
history of that release of government "secrets" need to be discussed in the
context of the WikiLeaks leak. Daniel Ellsberg, who released the copy of the Pentagon Papers, had
participated in the study itself while at RAND, a California think tank that
does military work, among other things. It took Ellsberg a while to find
someone to actually publish the papers. And, it turns out, The Times
had the WikiLeaks documents, but agreed to hold their release for some months.
Ah, the merchandising of news! Like Hollywood films, the
media likes a good, well-timed rollout.
The differences between the two batches of documents, almost
40 years apart, are far more than the similarities. Sure, they show that the government lies, etc., but it was
the effect on journalism that the release of the Pentagon Papers caused that
was almost more important back in the early 70s. Journalism as it was practiced post World War II, was irrevocably
altered by the publication of the Pentagon Papers. I don't expect present
journalism will be much affected in the same seismic way by the WikiLeaks
download. Just compare the difference between Daniel Ellsberg and the young
soldier (now imprisoned) who made the WikiLeaks documents available.
"Download" is part of it. Back in 1971 I can remember where I was sitting when I read
the first installment of the PP in the NYT.
(Just as many of my generation can remember where they were when they first
heard that JFK was shot.) Until
1971, though the so-called "New Journalism" was just starting (a magazine
phenomenon), large circulation newspapers had not yet begun to be frisky. They
were old school. But, the
difference was, again, not what the world learned from the PP, but the fact
that readers got to see the real documents, reams of them. And journalism from
then on began to publish more primary sources, not just summaries. And
journalists once again realized they had fallen down on the job, had not gotten
the real story, though there was always an exception or two.
That, unfortunately, still pertains. Journalists keep learning in the Bush
and Obama period that they aren't getting the story, the real story, out. This
is not accidental. Establishment
forces have tried to prevent the actual story from coming out for decades. And to dumb down news, as well as
everything else. Some have even bought entire networks to fashion the news as
they (or as Rupert Murdoch) see fit.
And it's true in the newspaper world, too, which has become
chain-oriented and endangered.Everything has become trivialized, speeded-up, made silly. USA Today used to be one of the worst, now it is among the best!Take the overnight sensation of the
Shirley Sherrod story. A right wing blogger puts out a misleading clip (that's
TV, not journalism) and the White House reacts, while journalism stops. The
news cycle is now less than 24 hours.
Some – including me – have dated the death of
journalism to the OJ trial. That marked the takeover of TV over print and all
journalism stopped. Journalism via TV became a sport of viewing, not
uncovering. We're still in that world. The fact that the White House plays along is only testament to how
pervasive that sort of coverage is. We are at best treated to breast-beating
after the fact, with many articles and TV minutes devoted to the life and times
of Shirley Sherrod. Good for her. But how about something before the fact,
rather than after the fact?
So, the WikiLeaks papers, or downloads, now will be studied,
mined for whatever sensational tidbits are available. But they won't alter journalism; they are the current
journalism. The horror is that WikiLeaks' good deed might not go
unpunished. The last show of
Supreme Court courage was the Pentagon Papers case, when it ruled in favor of a
free press. If the Roberts Court
was sitting then, free press would have lost. So, don't think things will necessarily get better. Be
afraid, be very afraid.