Commentary Magazine


Journalism That Knows No Shame

One can understand if the editors of the New York Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel have no respect for the secrecy needed to wage war successfully — especially unpopular wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are, after all, the sorts of people who, over a few drinks, would no doubt tell you that diplomacy is far preferable to war-making. But it seems that they have no respect for the secrecy that must accompany successful diplomacy either. That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from their decision to once again collaborate with an accused rapist to publicize a giant batch of stolen State Department cables gathered by his disreputable organization, WikiLeaks.

I risk sounding like a stuffy, striped-pants diplomat myself if I say that the conduct of all concerned is reprehensible and beneath contempt. But that’s what it is, especially because the news value of the leaks is once again negligible. As with the previous releases of military reports, the WikiLeaks files only fill in details about what has generally already been known. Those details have the potential to cause acute embarrassment — or even end the lives of — those who have communicated with American soldiers or officials, but they do little to help the general public to understand what’s going on.

Only someone who has spent the past few years on the moon can be surprised to discover that countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are extremely alarmed about the Iranian nuclear program and want the U.S. to stop it, by military action if need be. Yet this is the thrust of one of the main New York Times articles about the leaks. Other non-revelations include reports by American diplomats — which are only one degree removed from newspaper articles and hardly constitute proof of anything — that corruption is widespread in Afghanistan, that North Korea may have transferred missile technology to Iran, that the Chinese Politburo authorized the hacking of Google’s website, that Syria supplies Hezbollah with weapons, or that the U.S. offered various countries a host of incentives to take Guantanamo inmates off our hands.

OK, that’s not quite fair. There are some genuine revelations in all these documents. I, for one, didn’t realize that Libya’s head kook, Muammar Qaddafi, spends a lot of his time with a “voluptuous blonde” nurse from Ukraine or that he uses Botox. Of course, just because information is new doesn’t make it consequential, and this type of information is of interest primarily to editors and readers of Gawker, the gossip site (where I ran across it).

There was a time when editors and reporters thought of themselves as citizens first and journalists second. There were damaging leaks even during World War II, but when they occurred they were generally denounced by the rest of the press. We now seem to have reached a moment when the West’s major news organizations, working hand in glove with a sleazy website, feel free to throw spitballs at those who make policy and those who execute it. This is journalism as pure vandalism. If I were responsible, I would feel shame and embarrassment. But apparently, those healthy emotions are in short supply these days.