FAIR: WikiLeaks and the U.S. Press


Media resistance to exposure of government secrets

The website WikiLeaks posted tens of thousands of classified intelligence documents relating to the Afghanistan War on Sunday, July 25. Spanning the years 2004-09, the documents had been shared in advance with reporters from the New York Times, the British Guardian and the German Der Spiegel, all of which produced long pieces offering their interpretations of the documents.

In corporate U.S. media, the documents produced several narratives. For some, the WikiLeaks revelations were either not all that important, or certainly not as important as the leak of the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers. As a Washington Post story put it (7/27/10), "Unlike the Pentagon Papers, these documents--although they are closer to a real-time assessment and although they land in the superheated Internet era--do not reveal any strategy on the part of the government to mislead the public about the mission and its chances for success." The New York Times (7/26/10) noted that

overall, the documents do not contradict official accounts of the war. But in some cases the documents show that the American military made misleading public statements--attributing the downing of a helicopter to conventional weapons instead of heat-seeking missiles, or giving Afghans credit for missions carried out by Special Operations commandos.

Such comments reflect a somewhat puzzling standard for what qualifies as official deception. But the overriding message of some prominent outlets was that there was little to glean from the disclosures. The July 27 Washington Post provided a remarkable case study. One news story, headlined "WikiLeaks Disclosures Unlikely to Change Course of Afghanistan War," presented the leaks as good news for the war effort, asserting that the "release could compel President Obama to explain more forcefully the war's importance," and conveying White House claims that "the classified accounts bolstered Obama's decision in December to pour more troops and money into a war effort that had not received sufficient attention or resources from the Bush administration."

Another Post story, headlined "WikiLeaks Documents Cause Little Concern Over Public Perception of War," suggested that the White House and Congress were trying to turn the leaks into "an affirmation of the president's decision to shift strategy and boost troop levels in the nearly nine-year-long war." The same could be said for the Washington Post, which also editorialized that the WikiLeaks release "hardly merits the hype offered by the website's founder."

One area of obvious concern were documents that described attacks on civilians by U.S. and NATO forces. The WikiLeaks files brought this issue back into the media spotlight, but it's worth considering how different papers treated the issue. One of the Guardian's July 26 stories began with this lead:

A huge cache of secret U.S. military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and NATO commanders fear neighboring Pakistan and Iran are fueling the insurgency.

While the British paper led with civilian deaths, the New York Times' July 26 story reported that the archive of classified documents "offers an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal." The article's second paragraph describes it as a "daily diary of an American-led force often starved for resources and attention as it struggled against an insurgency that grew larger, better coordinated and more deadly each year." Ten paragraphs into the piece there is a reference to commando missions that "claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment." But the documents' numerous accounts of civilians killed by U.S. or allied forces got little attention in the Times' write-up, a choice justified that executive editor Bill Keller (NYTimes.com, 7/25/10) attempted to justify by saying that "all of the major episodes of civilian deaths described in the War Logs had been previously reported in the Times."

The possibility that the leaked documents might lead to more discussion of civilian casualties was frequently raised as a concern in U.S. media. The Washington Post editorial tried to minimize the documents' revelations on this issue: "The British newspaper in turn highlights what it says are 144 reported incidents in which Afghan civilians were killed or wounded by coalition forces. But the 195 deaths it counts in those episodes, though regrettable, do not constitute a shocking total for a four-year period." That point of view was echoed on CBS Evening News by correspondent Lara Logan:

Well, the issue of civilian casualties is a major one. And the U.S. has taken a lot of criticism because of this. However, what's interesting to note is that according to the documents, 195 Afghan civilians have been killed. But also according to the documents, 2,000 Afghan civilians have been killed by the Taliban, which is more than 10 times the number said to be killed by U.S. and NATO forces. And very little is being made of that. If the coverage would indicate that it's more of an issue for the U.S. to kill Afghan civilians than it is for the Taliban to do so.

The suggestion that this tally of 195 Afghan civilian deaths is comprehensive is absurd on its face, given that the WikiLeaks documents are in no way at all a comprehensive account of any aspect of the war. As the Guardian noted, that number "is likely to be an underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted from the daily snapshots reported by troops on the ground and then collated, sometimes erratically, by military intelligence analysts." Estimates of civilian casualties vary, but several thousand noncombatant Afghans were killed by U.S. and coalition forces during these years of the war. As for Logan's point about who bears more responsibility for civilian killings, there have been various attempts to make such determinations. In 2008, for instance, U.N. monitors counted over 2,000 civilian casualties; when responsibility could be determined, 41 percent of the deaths were attributed to U.S./NATO forces.

On the same broadcast in which Logan offered her critique, CBS reporter Chip Reid stressed that civilian deaths would remain a potent issue for the White House. Reid feared that the Obama administration

may be underestimating the problems here because, yes, people were aware and certainly the president was aware of the problem with civilian casualties, but if we're now going to be bombarded for days on end with a long series of specific examples, that's going to make it more difficult for both the Afghan people and the American people to support this war.

It is difficult to imagine that corporate media would be "bombarding" anyone "for days on end" with stories of dead Afghan civilians. Liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson (7/27/10), for instance, downplayed the importance of WikiLeaks' information about civilian deaths:

We already knew that U.S. and other coalition forces were inflicting civilian casualties that had the effect of enraging local villagers and often driving them into the enemy camp. The documents merely reveal episodes that were previously unpublicized--an October 2008 incident in which French troops opened fire on a bus near Kabul and wounded eight children, for example, and a tragedy two months later when a U.S. squad riddled another bus with gunfire, killing four passengers and wounding 11 others.

Old news, in other words--albeit news about which we were unaware.

Post columnist Anne Applebaum struck a different note (7/29/10), congratulating the media for already thoroughly documenting the sorts of events described in the WikiLeaks documents: "If you don't know by now that the ISI helped create the Taliban, or that civilian casualties are generally a problem for NATO, or that special forces units are hunting for Al-Qaeda fighters, all that means is that you don't read the mainstream media. Which means that you don't really want to know." (It's true that regular readers of outlets like the Post may be under the impression that Afghan civilian deaths are more of a problem for NATO than they are for Afghan civilians--FAIR Blog, 5/7/09.)

In the new issue of Time magazine (dated 8/9/10), managing editor Rick Stengel notes that WikiLeaks "has already ratcheted up the debate about the war," and that Time is trying "to contribute to that debate." They do so with a cover photo of a disfigured Afghan woman with the headline "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan." The clear implication is that the Taliban will commit similar atrocities without the presence of U.S. forces. It is difficult to imagine the magazine proposing the opposite: a headline like "What Happens If We Stay in Afghanistan," accompanied by a photo of the corpse of an Afghan child killed in an airstrike or a house raid.

Stengel argues, "We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it," adding: "What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead."

The idea that the way to respond to the WikiLeaks documents is to highlight atrocities committed by the Taliban is precisely what CBS correspondent Lara Logan called for. And it's also more propaganda than it is journalism.

FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. As an anti-censorship organization, we expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled. As a progressive group, FAIR believes that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information.