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Why Does WikiLeaks Get More Attention Than MSM’s Own Reporting?

December 2, 2010
Julian Assange (WikiLeaks)@HITBSecConf2009 KL

Source: biatch0r's Flickr page

I’m not disputing the “big story”-ness of the latest WikiLeaks…leak, but I can’t help but notice that the mainstream media seems to be anticipating each new WikiLeaks release with the fervor of an impending Halo 3 launch party while its own investigative journalism wallows in relative obscurity.

Maybe I’m out of touch, but the last time I remember a mainstream investigative piece capturing the national conversation the way WikiLeaks apparently does on a regular basis was when Rolling Stone published their Stanley McChrystal profile. And that wasn’t even really a product of a traditional “mainstream media” outlet. And it wasn’t really an investigative piece, either.

A couple theories on this:

1. WikiLeaks does things that MSM just can’t do. I was thinking back to this old “New Avengers” story where Captain America confronts Tony Stark about recruiting Wolverine, a known murderer, into the Avengers. Cap’s a by-the-book type of guy and doesn’t want a murderer on the team, but Tony argues that sometimes, bad guys need to die; rather than Iron Man or Cap become impure when one of those situations pops up, why not just have Wolverine do it?

This isn’t me passing judgment on what WikiLeaks does; I’m just saying that maybe MSM likes what WikiLeaks provides, but doesn’t want to expose itself to the same kind of persecution (prosecution?) that WikiLeaks is currently experiencing.

2. The old-school competitive mentality is too strong for a piece of journalism to become the conversation. It’s rare that MSM orgs credit each other, unless it’s in passing, and even then, that reference usually disappears by the second day’s reports (“once the news is out there, he who broke it doesn’t need to be referenced again,” seems to be the mentality). MSM can sit around and openly debate what WikiLeaks is and what it means for journalism, but would The New York Times’ investigative division ever become the focal point of the day’s news for some story they broke? I can’t really think of an instance (save for maybe the John McCain/mistress story from back in 2008).

I admittedly may very well be far off base here and if I am, please correct me in the comments.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. James Balcerak permalink
    December 2, 2010 11:01 am

    I think the problem here is that the MSM has a perfect (not to mention important) subject here to undertake in investigative journalism, but they fall short of doing so. What you see instead is an abundance of commentary, which ultimately serves to provide a narrative about the Wikileaks release more than it does to educate the audience about the cables themselves. The latter is much more important, I think, because it is conducive to promoting independent thought, and challenging authority, an authority that often has questionable conduct and intentions in its foreign policy. Instead however, you see a debate that is focused primary on the Wikileaks organization. An unbalanced focus that does not place nearly as much scrutiny and criticism on the potentially criminal actions of U.S. government institutions involved in foreign operations and policy that were actually revealed from this story.

    A media with a robust tradition of investigative journalism would be in the national interest, however, it often takes a back seat to the voices of personalities who have the power and privilege to make it onto the TV screen, or the OP-ed, a restricted demographic that equally restricts the spectrum of the debate.

  2. December 2, 2010 12:40 pm

    I think the real problem is that talking about WikiLeaks is easy and educating the public about the cables is hard. The possible prosecution of WikiLeaks is a story, no doubt (one with idiosyncrasies that the public also needs to be educated on) but not until something happens and right now, it’s all speculation.

    Now, I’m not calling MSM lazy for taking the “easy” route — on the contrary, they work very hard at this — but I am suggesting that digging through hundreds of thousands of formerly classified documents is likely to result in one big story, whereas an ongoing narrative about The WikiLeaks Saga is going to have a lot longer shelf life (re: ratings).

  3. Mark Balcerak permalink
    December 2, 2010 8:49 pm

    I think a lot of it has to do with why Wikileaks exists in the first place. Traditional media outlets were the de facto way to leak any story or challenge the position of authority for years; why do we now need a disparate web organization to break stories of this nature? If it has been so easy for them to gather this data why is it so hard for the MSM to do the same thing and actually break stories of this nature? Because traditional media got too comfortable with having “access” and providing “coverage” that they fail to enlighten or educate, and as a result have lost credibility with the vast majority of their audience. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of places do a great job of informing people of the day’s events, but as far as providing any relevant meaning, context, or insight? I think it’s safe to say most turn elsewhere. And when you start losing your credibility, you start losing respect for the work you do.

    No one ever received any good recognition for taking the easy way out and to expect the MSM to get it in this case seems odd to me. I think the people who actually read through these wires deserve a lot of credit, and if that’s what you’re getting at, I can agree with you. But I think a lot of this Wikileaks attention is because people are relieved that somebody is finally stepping up to do the right thing and fill the void traditional media left when the going got tough.

  4. December 3, 2010 12:23 pm

    @Mark- The only thing “wrong” with that argument, though, is that in the two most recent leaks, WikiLeaks gave its data to The New York Times and The Guardian to leak the info (just the latter in the most recent leak). So while WikiLeaks is kind of an anti-MSM organization, it still needs MSM’s reach in order to remain relevant (at least, for now).

  5. James Balcerak permalink
    December 3, 2010 1:10 pm

    The motivation for ratings definitely play some role in the type of coverage that is disseminated by the media. However, the MSM does have a relationship with government that influences the way they operate, whether it’s the secretary of the press or even intelligence agencies. There was an October column I read, by Robert Grenier (a former CIA employee), quoting him: “One of the things that has amazed me in my many interactions with members of the US press since then is how much they know about the inner workings of supposedly secret US organizations and programs, and which they do not reveal.” The MSM tries to avoid flak from the government as much as possible, and don’t like to see their organization come under fire. So what you have is a compliant media, one that is more likely to report off the contextual narrative provided by white house officials, requiring a more rouge organization that’s external from this relationship to reveal information that’s inconvenient to our highest officials.

    Wikileaks has done that, and now, we’ve seen our politicians pressure Amazon into stopping its hosting of Wikileaks, even though no terms of use were ever broken, the Library of Congress has blocked access to the site, the Obama administration is trying to find ways to prosecute Assange, and France I hear is trying to find a way to block the site altogether in their country. Quite the crisis of transparency.

  6. December 3, 2010 4:59 pm

    @James- Do you have a link to the Grenier column?

    I agree with some of what you’re saying, but mainly this: MSM is really good at reporting what’s happening; it is almost useless at reporting on the context of what’s happening.

  7. December 3, 2010 6:58 pm

    With the media in the USA mostly locked into what Jay Rosen termed “The View From Nowhere”, investigative journalism is always going to play second fiddle to “he said they said” reading of the tea-leaves and empty sloganeering.
    Reading media websites over the last week, I was struck by the massive difference between the management of the Wikileaks revelations between the USA and the UK. Major media outlets in the UK led with detailed revelations, expositions and discussions of the contents of the Wikileaks release. In contrast, many major US media outlets focussed instead on diatribes by bloviating politicians and commentators, many of them calling for the use of extra-judicial murder and other mechanisms (many of which I seem to remember in Cold War movies and the novel “1984”) for shutting down Wikileaks and its founder.
    The dichotomy is stark and educational. The mainstream media in the USA are wasting my time when they waffle on about the rights and wrongs of the Wikileaks revelations. This is not journalism, it’s like commentating on the aftermath of a traffic accident (“Ooh look over there, another person has been cut into four pieces…somebody’s gonna hang for this…”). Guess where I am spending my time reading?

  8. December 4, 2010 12:39 pm

    Paul, these are good questions. I agree with you about the “easy/hard” dichotomy. I said as much in my wrap-up on Tuesday, where I closed with this:

    “I think the Wikileaks cable release will have done more good than harm if we can turn the debate away from recrimination about leakage and to the substantive issues the leaks reveal.”

    As far as the interplay between WikiLeaks and MSM, I think Assange said it best when he noted that the heavy lifting is done by WikiLeaks staff and MSM, because the masses (my characterization) can amplify the message but are unlikely to engage in fact-checking material uploaded to WikiLeads. The MSM has manpower, at least for really “big” stories. The relationship turns symbiotic. (There’s the NYT vetting stuff with the Gov’t, but that’s another story.)

  9. James Balcerak permalink
    December 4, 2010 11:06 pm

    @Paul- Link to the article is here (had a tough time finally digging it out from search results):

    It seems like debates about the “true nature” of the media can get into a lot of nuances, since you’re trying to tie the grand scheme of media for popular consumption, with all it’s omissions, inclusions, leadings and misleadings, by the visible personalities of the TV, which can vary, to the motives of invisible personalities that run the networks, and who exert influence over Washington (more so since the Citizens United ruling). There are a lot of behaviors to account for, and a lot to examine, especially if you’re going to advance the touchy argument that the media has a pro-Israeli bias. Personally, as for the relationship between media and power, I don’t it’s much of a stretch to say that the media tries to quietly shift the debate to a context in favor of the elite when you consider the giant revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, which influences everything from the FDA to the foreign policy towards private firms in military occupied areas such as Iraq (including Blackwater and Halliburton) and the West Bank.

  10. Mark Balcerak permalink
    December 5, 2010 2:02 pm

    Looks like media outlets are actually collaborating with Wikileaks on these stories. Another interesting wrinkle:

  11. December 5, 2010 2:24 pm

    @Graham- I think pretty much everything you said is true (I’ll have to look more closely at the UK’s coverage of the leaks, if nothing else, for my own education). For all the news you’d think would be possible to cram into a 24 hour endless news cycle, we get pretty much the same crap over and over, which is to say, 10 percent news and 90 percent commentary (it’s arguable that it’s even more lopsided). Rosen’s view from nowhere sums up American journalism pretty well: Networks are terrified of seeming biased toward anything, so they just report the facts, but in doing so, they miss the point of those facts.

    It’s kind of like how American political coverage has completely devolved into score-keeping. The Democratic Party lost big time in November, ergo, the Democrats failed and the country has turned back to the Republican Party to fix things. That’s not entirely untrue, but it’s overly simplistic. The Democratic Party used its power and their 2010 election losses were the cost. Is that really losing? Don’t ask the American MSM, because declaring a “winner” by those standards would mean taking a side.

    @Kathy- I completely agree with what you said (both in your comment and your post). I suppose the real test of this WikiLeaks/MSM relationship will be to see if the MSM makes a conversation of any stories to come out of the leaks long-term. But what worries me is that with another leak on the horizon, any useful information from this most recent leak will get buried by the new narrative (WikiLeaks vs. The Banks).

    @James- The “debate” that you mentioned (which I think, if I’m reading you correctly, is synonymous with what I call “the conversation”) is the problem to begin with. The things that are being debated, in many cases, have answers, if only MSM would shut up and balance out their 90 percent commentary that I mentioned with more of a focus on educating and informing. To do so, though, would mean what I was mentioning to Graham: MSM would have to “take a side” in certain scenarios, simply because, in a lot of cases, there is only one “right” side to a story.

  12. December 6, 2010 2:06 pm

    @Mark- Just got your comment (heh). Interesting story and one that also more or less answers the question Jay Rosen had about whether WikiLeaks is endangering international diplomacy by indiscriminately releasing confidential diplomatic cables.


  1. This Week in Review: Making sense of WikiLeaks, a Daily tablet paper, and Gawker leaves blogging behind » Nieman Journalism Lab

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