New York Times‘ Public Editor looks at the ethical decisions made by the paper in accepting the Wikileaks documents over Afghanistan.
In the end, he argues that the paper made the right choice but there is one thing missing; the focus the paper took towards the US government. Was it too servile?
Mr. Bill Keller [Times editor] said no conditions were placed on the news organizations’ use of the material, except that they were obligated to synchronize publication with WikiLeaks’s publication online. The Times mapped out its own coverage.
“We chose the documents that struck us as most interesting,” Mr. Keller said in an e-mail message. “We did our own analysis of the material. We decided what to write. We did not discuss any of those matters with WikiLeaks, or give them an advance look at our stories.”
He emphasized, in other words, The Times’s independence from WikiLeaks. The issue emerged as a definitive one in my conversations with veteran journalists, a legal expert and a retired general.
Some say that what’s important is the material itself. Whether or not Julian Assange is a rogue with a political agenda, what matters most is that The Times authenticates the information.
David Rudenstine, a Cardozo Law School professor and author of “The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case,” said, “If The Times makes the judgment that this is the real thing, I don’t think it matters much” who it is dealing with.
Another view holds that it is impossible to separate the legitimacy of the material from its source. In this situation, the challenge is compounded because The Times’s source, WikiLeaks, obtained the material from its own source — a leaker whose identity remains uncertain.
“Did the source select which documents to turn over?” asked Bill Kovach, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in an e-mail message to me. “What was the nature of the transaction between WikiLeaks and the source(s)? Did WikiLeaks turn over only some documents and not others?”
Mr. Keller said the documents deserved attention, “whatever you think of WikiLeaks as an organization.” He added that Times staffers scrutinized the material to satisfy themselves that it had not been manipulated.