Interview with Steve Rendall, Senior Analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) on WikiLeaks and American reactions to the U.S. diplomatic cable release.
Is WikiLeaks a journalistic entity?
Well of course it is, because it receives information, it collects information, it publishes information, it edits it. If you look at its website, information is edited, it’s commented upon. Of course it’s a journalistic outfit.
What do you make of the US government and media reaction to the release of these documents?
I’ll say that the government reaction, whether the U.S. government decides to go through with any legal actions or not, it has already, with the help of the media, created a chilling effect. You have people who are thinking of contributing to WikiLeaks, which is also a not-for-profit organization just like we are here at FAIR, [who] are worried that they may be seen by the government as people aiding a terrorist organization. It’s not far-fetched when you have several prominent politicians claiming that WikiLeaks is a terrorist organization. So that’s one way to look at it.
While there are some in the mainstream media who applaud WikiLeaks and support WikiLeaks, there are many who denounce WikiLeaks, and their denunciations are often quite contradictory. They’ll say, “this is really dangerous” and “it’s produced nothing we didn’t already know.”
Now another way they tried to diminish the findings of WikiLeaks is to say that if you look carefully at the WikiLeaks cables so far released by WikiLeaks, you’ll find that it actually reflects quite well on American diplomats, American diplomacy and what we try to do is [show that] there are just so many of these cables that really don’t at all reflect well on the U.S.
For instance… when the U.S. refused to declare what was happening in Honduras illegal, when a legitimately elected government was overthrown with the help of the military there, the U.S. played dumb and refused to declare it illegal, even though the cables show they knew it was illegal. And the coup mongers, the people who carried out the coup, and the arguments that they were making that the president was acting unlawfully or unconstitutionally were invalid arguments. The State Department [and] the embassy knew this. This is damning. The State Department and its related embassies are supposed to be doing the work of promoting democracy, not helping overthrow democracy. We’ve documented them, [but] I’m not going to enumerate them. [There is] the fact that the U.S. intervened or interceded in Spain to get the Spanish legal system to drop its investigations and possible prosecutions of U.S. officials over a number of things, including torture, Spanish detainees in Guantanamo, and killing of Spanish journalists in Iraq by U.S. forces.
So you have … a lot of stuff in here, one, that we didn’t know before; two, other stuff that was denied by the U.S. government even though it was still heavily assumed among people who watch the news closely. And those assumptions have been corroborated by the leaks. Peter Hart, who wrote most of that release exposed the New York Times…, he exposed [that] the New York Times had taken a cable that they had not published at the time and was not published at the time, and completely misconstrued it, to say that with confidence that Iran had medium-range missiles. That cable once it came out was very useful because it showed the New York Times had way overstated what the cable said.
The cable did not in fact say what they said it said, and in fact included caveats to the effect of the Russian government, Russian intelligence, saying they had looked at the materials and that their assessment was that while Iran may have gotten some pieces of missiles, some spare parts from some medium range missiles, they did not think they had medium-range missiles. I’m not going to get into too much detail here. But as you go down the list there you will notice that a lot of that stuff is not, you know the U.S. Special Forces are actively conducting operations inside Pakistan when the elected government denies that they are.
On supporting WikiLeaks
We applaud WikiLeaks, we’re circulating a petition to get people to sign on to support WikiLeaks against the massive assault they are coming under from the government from corporations and in many respects from the media.
What do you make of private companies freezing access to WikiLeaks?
Now one of the things that’s quite interesting and the story is a little old now, is that when Visa and MasterCard dropped WikiLeaks, said they would no longer process donations to WikiLeaks, a few days later a cable emerged that showed that the U.S. government was interceding with the Russian government to try to get some Russian legislation that was about to be voted on rewritten to make it more friendly to visa and MasterCard. Now I’m not saying that this was a direct quid pro quo, because there’s no evidence of that, at all. But it does tell you what the real business of the U.S. Embassy and the State Department, it tells you something about the actual business of the State Department and Embassy, and it makes sense out of the story for you, when you start thinking, “Wow, why would Visa & MasterCard do this, isn’t WikiLeaks money-green?” Well the fact is that the U.S. government goes to bat for them all the time, so why shouldn’t they be?
Now it shines a light on an aspect of government-corporate relations that we don’t think about all that frequently. The other thing that’s absolutely maddening…the repeated misinformation that, one, WikiLeaks has dumped 251,000 on the internet, and, two, that WikiLeaks does not take any care to edit or redact or take precautions to protect innocents who may be named in some of the cables. Those two things are utterly wrong.
WikiLeaks has that many diplomatic docs; they have not published them, and the vast majority of what they’ve published on their website are the mainstream media versions, that is stories about the cables that have been published by the media partners that WikiLeaks has worked with. So therefore the articles that they’ve published on the cables are from the Guardian and El Pais and these other journalistic outlets and include (for a while the New York Times) and include the redactions that those media outlets have made. So the notion that they’re, one, indiscriminately dumping these documents, and two, that they are not taking any care to protect innocents who may be named in the cables, those are just both absolutely false. And those falsehoods are repeated over and over again throughout the media.
So its been altogether very illuminating about where our media is, you see some bright spots: I think the entire staff and faculty at Columbia journalism school have signed a letter in support of WikiLeaks. Which was actually kind of surprising to me, because some of those people I thought would have been far more critical. But so there are some bright spots, and there’s people defending WikiLeaks and accurately calling them a journalistic outfit, which is what they are. But there are many, many more it seems to me who are dumping on WikiLeaks, treating it as a terrorist group, as an enemy combatant, as some lesser form of pariah. It’s quite illuminating about where our media is.
On WL comparisons to the Pentagon Papers:
…What’s very interesting to me is people saying this is not Daniel Ellsberg; Julian Assange is not Daniel Ellsberg. That’s correct. Daniel Ellsberg’s analogue in this is probably Bradley Manning. We don’t know for sure if Bradley Manning is the leaker here but Daniel Ellsberg was the leaker. Julian Assange has not leaked anything. Another, by the way, frequently repeated error in the media is that WikiLeaks is leaking these docs; they’re not. In the Pentagon Papers analogy, WikiLeaks is the New York Times; it’s receiving the leaks.
So its been quite an interesting ride, and I think it’s going to be more interesting as these cables come out… Another one by the way that was interesting to me, was … basically how Shell was running the Nigerian government. It might have been, of course, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, but [Shell] was basically running the oil industry there where the U.S. has huge interests. It’s one fascinating story after another. If any of these reporters who are critical had broken some of these stories in isolation…
What does this say about American media generally?
I think the whole thing tells you what a Palace Court press corps we have. In other words we have a press corps that isn’t all that different than, say, the press corps in Saudi Arabia. What is different though is the press corps in Saudi Arabia which basically strives not to offend the King and is more or less servile to that — that’s fairly similar to the U.S., but there if you aren’t servile you can get yourself in a lot of trouble. In the U.S. we don’t have that excuse. You can challenge the government, you can publish info that can in some cases, this is why we have the 1st amend – we don’t have the First Amendment so you can publish innocuous, benign things, we have the First Amendment because it can damage governments, because journalism can hurt people. It can hurt powerful people. It can undermine elites. That’s why you have the First Amendment, because you don’t need protection form the powerless.
We don’t know what’s going to happen in Sweden – Julian Assange can be guilty or utterly innocent on those charges — it makes no difference to the story of whether or not WikiLeaks is a journalistic organization and whether or not they’re doing a public service. And we say they are, in both of those cases.
There are some other legitimate criticisms that can be made: early on they did release some documents that did not have names redacted, that was not in the diplomatic cables that was in the case of Afghanistan. But so far, by the way, the Pentagon says that nobody has been harmed by any of this information.
What is New York Times’ motive in being servile?
The same as it was in publishing story after story selling the Iraq war. Much more than the ironically “leftwing New York Times” or “liberal New York Times” was more responsible than any other media outlet for sending us to war in Iraq, although on its editorial page it wrote sort of hand-wringing editorials wondering if this was really the right time to go to war and all that sort of thing, on the front page and in the news sections it was publishing one story after another, Judy Miller, Michael Gordon, others, making the White House’s case.
It’s the same reason they’re part of an establishment; the media part of that establishment is funded by advertising. Those advertisers are plugged in to the establishment, often large political contributors, many of them are military contractors, or otherwise engaged in business with the government. It’s part of the military-industrial-media complex; the New York Times is central to that. The same reason why even though the New York Times doesn’t like George Bush at all, they never once did a story about the falsehood that George W. Bush said repeatedly, after the war had started, …[that] we have to go to war because Saddam Hussein would not let the inspectors in, and anybody watching that story knows the inspectors were allowed in. In fact, Bush and the U.S. government had to request that they leave, and they did leave four days before we started bombing on March 20, 2003. They were there. Bush said that at least three times, it might have been four times. The New York Times never even mentioned it. Now why didn’t they? Not because they liked Bush, because they didn’t like Bush. As critical as they are of Obama they like him far more than they like Bush. They didn’t do it because it’s part of their job to make the United States look good. If the President of the United States is a liar, or so incompetent as to not grasp basic facts about the war that he launched, that reflects very badly on the United States. Not just our image, but also if people think the U.S., the economy that is the engine of the world’s economy, is being run by somebody who is possibly completely out of touch with reality, that could be bad for the markets. There are all kinds of reasons why the New York Times is an echo chamber for the most powerful official and his policies.