August 29, 2011

How WikiLeaks has changed the role of journalism

Kristinn-Hrafnsson
Kristinn Hrafnsson, spokesperson for WikiLeaks (photo by JD Lasica)

 

WikiLeaks official criticizes New York Times before international group of journalists

JD LasicaWikiLeaks has changed the role of journalism and “made journalists braver,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, the official spokesperson for WikiLeaks, told an international group of journalists assembled in Santiago, Chile, on Thursday.

Braver, that is, with one striking exception: the New York Times.

“The timidity of the New York Times came as a surprise and disappointment to me,” Hrafnsson told the assembly of 60 news executives, editors and reporters. “It was not the New York Times of the early 1970s where the Times was willing to take on the Nixon administration by publishing the Pentagon Papers.”

It’s pretty much a given that Hrafnsson, or any WikiLeaks official, would be arrested if he set foot in the United States. Hrafnsson also is certain that the National Security Agency monitors every email he receives.

After his presentation, I asked Hrafnsson, a veteran journalist from Iceland, why he was singling out the Times for criticism. (I spoke to the same group a few hours later.)

When WikiLeaks released 77,000 Afghan War documents to news organizations in July 2010, the New York Times was accorded the right to publish the scoop on its website. Instead, Hrafnsson said, the Times apparently was so worried about the likely furor over release of the Afghanistan war logs that critical minutes passed, and the Times decided to report the news only after other publications had done so.

“They were deathly afraid of being the first one to post it on the Internet,” he said. “They were dead frozen with their finger on the button.”

Hrafnsson surmised that the paper feared it would be branded “a traitor” news organization by political figures still incensed over WikiLeaks’ earlier release of classified State Department diplomatic cables. Three months later, when the Iraq war logs were released, the Times — unlike the vast majority of overseas media outlets such as The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais, Der Spiegel, Sweden’s SVT and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism — led with a peculiar news angle about Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs. It downplayed the big news: that the U.S. military was routinely turning over captured civilians and Taliban militants to Iraqi government officials for torture.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they did what they did for political reasons,” Hrafnsson said. Continue reading