Greg Mitchell revived live-blogging at The Nation by covering the long unfolding WikiLeaks drama (he is now on day 73!)
Now that he has made himself the go-to resource for all things WikiLeaks, it seems fitting that he’s also the first to come out with a book chronicling the incredible story of the organisation: “The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (And Beyond)“.
Business Insider’s The Wire spoke to Mitchell about the unprecedented media impact of WikiLeaks, its tempestuous relationship with major media outlets, and the intense controversy and scrutiny Julian Assange has undergone.
First, tell us how your book on WikiLeaks grew out of your WikiLeaks blog on The Nation.
My blog has been going since day one of WikiLeaks, and now that it’s day 67, it has gained a vast worldwide following. I’ve done live blogs on many subjects, and I didn’t know that this would be that different, but with the way that the cables were released slowly, it continued for over two months and it continues to keep going every day. So the book in a sense is an extension of that. It’s not really focused on Assange himself — there is a lot of Assange in it, but it doesn’t tell the story of WikiLeaks going back for years, it actually traces what has happened particularly in the U.S. since the release of the Iraq video.
This is the first WikiLeaks book to come out, ahead of the New York Times and Guardian, which also have books coming out. How do you think the coming flood of WikiLeaks books affected the publishing process?
I think my book was technically the first book to come out last week. Now the NYT is coming out with an e-book that collects their coverage, and the Guardian just came out this week with their book. Assange is doing his memoir, and there is also a book coming out by one of his former associates who started OpenLeaks that is very critical of Assange. And I’m sure there will be many other books. I was able to update my book up until last week, and I’d like to think that my book looks different from the other books. Certainly the New York Times and Guardian had planned to collect their coverage, but people who have followed my blog for the past two months — and it seems to expand every day — can, I think, appreciate the way I have covered WikiLeaks.
What you have to keep in mind with the Times is that Keller says over and over again that the Times was not partners with Assange, and kept its distance, and he rejects Assange’s saying that he could play these newspapers like puppets and that he was a puppet master. Keller can swear up and down that that is not true, but in reality, the Times was collaborating with Assange for massive coverage, from the war logs to cablegate. He can say they weren’t partners but in reality the Times was very happy to take the lead on covering and publishing Wikileaks stuff all year.
For Keller to turn around and completely dump on Assange, in the language he used, I think, has drawn him scorn from a lot of quarters — not so much for the facts in the piece, or in his opinion, which he has a right to obviously, but in the way he expressed it. It has really brought criticism from so many people.
Then, in addition, he revealed — beyond what anyone knew — the extent to which the Times showed the cables to the State department, and then managed to kill some of them [on account of that.] Guardian said they didn’t show anything to the State department, so it showed maybe a little too much New York Times cooperation with the State department to not run certain things.
His piece got an awful lot of criticism across the spectrum, so I’m not sure his piece did him or the New York Times a lot of good.
Were the major media outlets like the New York Times and Guardian united in their dealings with WikiLeaks?
It was different for different parts — the Iraq video was one thing, and cablegate was another.
There always was collaboration and cooperation between media outlets. They all released their stories and cables at the same minute of each day and so forth. What was different in the last case was that Assange had gotten so angry at the Times that he was cutting them out of a release. Then Guardian got its own copy of the cables from another source, and Guardian then shared those with the Times. So Guardian went out of its way to help the Times, and this made Assange super angry, particularly since he was trying to freeze the Times out because of their coverage of him. So in that sense, Guardian and the Times were even more closely tied together than ever.
But once the Times had the cables, they were going to do their own thing — they were going to decide what to cover and what to show the State department, and Guardian had separate things it was going to focus on. So they were still joined together, but each of the media outlets decided what to do on their own.
Assange and the Times had a falling out earlier, then he later had a falling out with Guardian, and it partly started with Guardian because they gave cables to the Times.
Do you find that WikiLeaks presented a profoundly different sort of journalism — if you in fact think it is a sort of journalism?
It’s completely different because the documents are coming in bulk, they are coming to an outside source — first WikiLeaks, and now there will be others. It turned open to the public. In the case of WikiLeaks, they have a revised model where they worked both with the media and apart from the media.
I think what angers a lot of people who cover the media, and people who may be more sympathetic to what WikiLeaks is doing, is when the press sort of acts like they don’t do this sort of thing or they haven’t done this sort of thing for decades. When they get their own leaks, they’re not in bulk, they’re not 200 cables at a time, but their reporters every week are breaking stories based on classified documents and highly classified information.
And yet, on their editorial pages or in their columns, they often attack WikiLeaks for going too far or releasing classified information, and that people should be arrested or prosecuted. And yet you have newspapers — the New York Times certainly is at the forefront — who are always accepting leaks from national security people and putting them on the front page, and they call it journalism and in the public interest.
I think it is the whole thing of being the gatekeepers. The mainstream press wants to be, and always has been, gatekeepers. They want to print the leaks, they want to decide what is important, they want to be able to patrol the information, they want to be able to decide what the public needs to know — and then hide other things. They’ve often gotten great criticism over “why haven’t they done this?”, “why did they do that?”, “who are they protecting?” and “why do they protect their sources to such an extent that it raises suspicions?”
So their role as gatekeeper is extremely threatened by this. WikiLeaks was able to go from different paper to different paper and release documents, so even small papers in Norway or Lebanon or wherever are breaking stories because WikiLeaks can send cables to them that are extremely relevant or blockbuster, which these news outlets can then use, and it totally is not controlled by the major mainstream outlets.
It’s a whole new world, and it sets up this odd relationship and the odd responses that you see from many mediums. It’s not unusual to see on the same day in a newspaper — and I’m thinking of the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times — where on their editorial page they are blasting WikiLeaks left and right, and on the front page they are running a story based on the cable, and how great these cables are, when it’s bombshell stuff.
It’s really a contradiction, but it certainly makes it interesting.
Where do you position yourself in the WikiLeaks controversy?
If you go back over 67 days, you’ll see how many items I’ve posted [on my blog]. What I look for is what’s interesting and what’s important, and what should people know about. There are items you might say are critical of Wikileaks and other items that seem to be very supportive, so I present everything. The book is like the blog in that it’s not constantly my opinion or my saying what is right or wrong, or Assange is great or Assange is evil. It’s more reportorial and history and quoting a lot of other people, though I think in the end people will detect sympathies.
One of the reasons I wanted to do the book was my feeling that there was so much publicity for cablegate in the last few months that very few people really remember what happened earlier. I wrote a piece in The Nation earlier listing all the revelations that came out in the cables, as a way to remind people, because the media moved on so quickly. In a way I’m trying to make up for the fact that until cablegate, the media had an orgy of coverage on some of these things, and then basically said it’s not that important and turned the page. So in some ways my book is going back to remind people of the really important revelations that came out before cablegate.
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