by Matthew L. Schafer
Note: This report originally appeared in the media blog Lippmann Would Roll.
On Sunday The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel published reports detailing over 90,000 secret military documents. The documents outline on the ground events in Afghanistan from January 2004 to December of 2009. The reports include descriptions of 144 incidents of civilian causalities, a “black ops” team that is charged with hunting down and either capturing or killing wanted Taliban leaders, and the acquisition by the Taliban of heat seeking surface to air missiles.
“I think the reaction to this type of material–a breach of federal law–is always the same,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a Monday press briefing. “…and that is whenever you have the potential for names and for operations and for programs to be out there in the public domain besides being against the law has the potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military.
Governmental reaction aside, an interesting dynamic always emerges when the press deals with the disclosure of classified or otherwise secret government material. The dynamic is even more interesting when coverage of the story by blogs and other new media are juxtaposed to that of traditional media.
While blogs are relatively liberal in their coverage of just about anything, traditional media operate on norms and routines that are inherently more conservative than that of blogs. Anecdotally, for example, the publication of these most recent documents left the Los Angeles Times asking “Was Wikileaks release of Afghan War documents done in poor judgment?” While blogs were publishing headlines suggesting that already the War Logs provide enough evidence supporting claims of war crimes.
While new media provides a new environment in which this story unfolds, the general situation is not new. The Pentagon Papers for example, a trove of classified military documents highlighting the dire situation in Vietnam, were leaked by Dan Ellsberg to The New York Times, which in turn began publishing the documents on June 13 of 1971. After refusing to stop publishing the papers, the government filed a suit against the New York Times. While the case was under adjudication, an appellate court ordered the Times to stop publication of the documents–the first time the United States government had ever explicitly practiced any form of prior restraint on the press. The Supreme Court later ruled in favor of the New York Times (and the Washington Post), which began publishing the papers again.
The Pentagon Papers is just one example of past conflicts between the government and the press. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that the traditional press is not as antagonistic as many believe. Indeed, a recent book entitled “When the Press Fails” outlines the relatively cozy relationship between the government and the press. So cozy in fact, the authors argue the only viewpoints, in general, that make it into the news are viewpoints of official sources within the government.
“In news about most government policy issues, the absence of credible and potentially decisive opposition from inside government itself leaves the mainstream press generally unable to build and sustain counterstories,” Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingston argue.
Simply, the press prefers to play the objectivity card and not include diverse viewpoints of “non-traditional” sources. The close relationship also extends to publishing top secret documents; as both the Washington Post in the case of their recent “Top Secret America” and the New York Times in the current case went to the White House–not to seek permission–but rather to offer them fair warning that the story is about to run.
Yet, the new media environment does not internalize the same relationship that the traditional press and the government do. Blogs are far more racy with their coverage than are the traditional press. One could even say the look of blog headlines alone are more antagonistic than the traditional press. This is ever obvious from the front pages of a variety of news outlets upon the release of the Afghan Logs on Sunday, which are featured in this video.
For example, Fox News initially led their coverage as a sub-headline under a lead about BP CEO Tony Hayward stepping down. The Washington Post also had the leak story playing second fiddle to a story–the immigration debate. CBS News had just two small headlines about the story. Yet, the Huffington Post ran a picture of soldiers pointing rifles under the red headline: THE WAR LOGS: A Devastating Portrait of the Failing War in Afghanistan.” The Drudge Report ran a similar headline across the top of its front page.
It is no secret that blogs are not tied to the same code of conduct that their traditional counterparts are. That fact gives blogs, in general, greater latitude to play with a story’s focus, angle, tone, and sources or lack thereof. While this may not be kosher with the majority of the traditional media, it indeed serves an important purpose. It breathes life into stories, offers independent viewpoints, and highlights facets of a story that would otherwise be left in the dark unless a source commented about it. Although some blogs can be toxic in both their rhetoric and lack of validity, on the whole blogs provide an important context to stories that traditional journalism cannot. Sometimes stories may merit all caps headlines and red font, and that’s exactly what bloggers are good at.
As Lev Grossman of Time wrote simply back in 2004, “Bloggers are unconstrained by such journalistic conventions as good taste, accountability and objectivity — and that can be a good thing.”