WikiLeaks has skewered the news divisions of the American broadcast networks on the horns of a dilemma. How to cover yet another data dump of state secrets by transnational, stateless, hackers--secrets that their own government swears are damaging to national security? Should they be true to their journalistic roots and celebrate the transparency about the workings of the State Department that the diplomatic cables offer? Or should they be true to their nationality, valuing the security that diplomatic secrets are designed to protect over the anarchism of indiscriminate leaking?    
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THE HORNS OF THE WIKILEAKS DILEMMA WikiLeaks has skewered the news divisions of the American broadcast networks on the horns of a dilemma. How to cover yet another data dump of state secrets by transnational, stateless, hackers--secrets that their own government swears are damaging to national security? Should they be true to their journalistic roots and celebrate the transparency about the workings of the State Department that the diplomatic cables offer? Or should they be true to their nationality, valuing the security that diplomatic secrets are designed to protect over the anarchism of indiscriminate leaking?

The gradual bit-by-bit publication of this massive dump of diplomatic secrets--some 250,000 classified messages in all--has certainly been newsworthy. Over the past nine weekdays, a total of 81 minutes of coverage has appeared on the three nightly newscasts, with NBC (35 min v ABC 23, CBS 22) taking the lead. WikiLeaks has been Story of the Day on three occasions (Monday and Tuesday of last week and Monday of this week), the lead item on NBC three times, ABC twice and CBS once.

Yet unlike the previous release by WikiLeaks in July, when 92,000 secret logs from the Pentagon were released, all concerning the Afghanistan War, there is no single already-existing news story that these latest secrets informed. In July, correspondents could mine the WikiLeaks data for insight into how to cover the military strategy, the diplomatic jockeying and the political popularity of the war in Afghanistan. The war was a focused story and the Pentagon's secrets improved the quality of reporting on it.

Sure enough, this time, there were individual story threads that were gleaned from the document dump, first by newspaper reporters who were given insider access to the secrets by WikiLeaks, then by the networks and other news organizations, which covered those tidbits as they entered the public domain. However, there has been no single coherent story revealed from this mass of data. That is why WikiLeaks itself--its propriety and its legality--became the story. As Tyndall Report discussed last July, the media angle was a sideshow during the Afghanistan dump; this time it has become the central story.

The American networks found themselves on the horns of that dilemma between their commitment to transparency and their loyalty to their nation. Their response was conflicted and incoherent--until they glimpsed a lifeline. They could avoid making those difficult decisions altogether if they could turn the story into a celebrity manhunt instead, for Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' figurehead.

A TYPOLOGY OF SECRETS The conflicted attitude about Wikileaks manifested itself as a general tone of disapproval and alarm about the underlying organization; and with a sense of interest and curiosity about the specific secrets that the organization made public.

Those secrets, so far, have fallen into three broad categories: potentially scandalous revelations about the conduct of the United States government; newsworthy insights into dilemmas facing foreign governments; and trivial gossip that would not be worthy of coverage at all, except for the fact that the State Department had, needlessly, categorized the scuttlebutt as secret.

1.Potential Scandals: at the United Nations; in Yemen; and in Afghanistan.

The revelation that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and her predecessor Condoleezza Rice, had ordered diplomats to violate UN neutrality and engage in espionage against their colleagues hardly made a ripple, mentioned in passing by NBC's Andrea Mitchell. The exposure of a conspiracy between the President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and the Gen David Petraeus to lie about the clandestine war that US special forces are prosecuting there was mentioned in more detail--but covered as a problem for the Sanaa regime rather than for the Pentagon. "All this potentially undermines a key US ally," was how ABC's Jonathan Karl calculated the fallout.

Only the diplomatic cables concerning Afghanistan were reported in enough detail to provide a potential embarrassment for President Barack Obama's foreign policy. Their release coincided with his surprise trip to inspect the troops at Bagram AFB and they contradicted his claims that the government of Hamid Karzai was a viable partner to take over national security, allowing US forces to withdraw in 2014. "We knew the Karzai regime was bad," noted NBC's Mitchell," but these newly released cables show just how corrupt US officials believe it really is." White House correspondents Chip Reid at CBS and Jake Tapper at ABC both cited WikiLeaks' releases to make the case that the handover plan was flawed.

So, as an exercise in news agenda setting, the WikiLeaks enterprise has underperformed in generating coverage of potential scandals. Only the Afghan leaks achieved any traction--and that was because Afghanistan policy was already an ongoing controversy on the networks' agenda. WikiLeaks was able to add color to a story that was already established; but not to generate a new scandal from scratch.

2.Foreign Insights: in Russia; in the People's Republic of China; in Pakistan; in the autocratic kingdoms of the Arab World.

In an environment of swingeing budget cuts against foreign newsgathering, this is the area in which WikiLeaks' contribution is least troublesome and most productive for the American networks. A component of the job of diplomats is to report on the internal political dynamics of the nations to which they are assigned; this aspect is not too dissimilar to that of the foreign correspondent. There is enough overlap that the cables could be used as a basis for reportage.

So, WikiLeaks becomes the news hook to allow us to hear coverage about the influence of organized crime in Russia, "a virtual Mafia state," as NBC's Mitchell quoted. ABC organized a round-up of foreign-based correspondents Clarissa Ward and Nick Schifrin and Lara Setrakian to reference Beijing's growing frustration with North Korea and its potential acceptance of Korean unification; Islamabad's refusal to accept controls on its nuclear arsenal and its inability to rein in domestic support for the Taliban; the paralysis of Arab states in forming a policy towards Iran, caught between opposition to Teheran by ruling elites and solidarity among the general population, born of resentment against the United States and Israel.

Transparency concerning this type of insight can only improve Americans' understanding of foreign countries and US foreign policy towards them. Continuing to make such cables unclassified--whether illicitly through the conduit of WikiLeaks or directly by no longer reflexively resorting to the secret stamp--would improve overseas newsgathering by allowing correspondents to check diplomatic insights against the perceptions of local journalists and other sources in the countries concerned. In the traditional role of the foreign correspondent, this work had to be done from a bureau. Transparent diplomatic cables combined with the World Wide Web would liberate such newsgathering to cover more corners of the globe, and in less costly fashion.

3.Embassy Gossip: Moammar Khadafy has a voluptuous Ukrainian blonde for a nurse; Silvio Berlusconi hankers after nubile flesh; the TV viewers of Riyadh love Desperate Housewives, per ABC's Jim Sciutto.

This is the obverse of the coverage of potential scandals in point one, above. If those scandals were perhaps undercovered because WikiLeaks was seen to have an ax to grind in publicizing them, this gossip was only deemed worthy of mention because it happened to be mentioned in a secret cable. Diplomats had no business labeling this trivia classified. It should have been disseminated through not

Secretary Rodham Clinton herself joked about the scuttlebutt. All three newscasts (here, here and here) quoted the quip that she repeated from an unnamed diplomat to whom she had apologized for any indiscretion that the cables might contain: "You should see what we say about you."

THE REFLEX RESPONSE AGAINST WIKILEAKS The dissonance in the networks' coverage derives from the contrast between reporters' measured and informative coverage of the content of the cables that WikiLeaks released and the alarmist attitude about the motives and the impact for the release itself. Pentagon correspondents, whose journalistic role is to cover national security, were most exercised about the existence of a stateless organization that had no stake in the concept.

NBC's Jim Miklaszewski warned darkly about the damage WikiLeaks could do "to national security and the lives of American service members," even before any information had been released, describing the looming data dump's contents as "top secret" even though it turned out not to be so highly classified. CBS' David Martin accused WikiLeaks of doing Osama bin Laden's homework for him by publishing a file of global locations "vital to national security and public health." They included mines and laboratories, pipelines and dams--however it is hard to make the case that the existence of hydroelectric projects in Quebec is a secret of state.

WikiLeaks was accused of jeopardizing the safety of the sources that diplomats consulted to compile their cables. Assange told ABC's Sciutto that he had contacted the State Department to ask for a list of such vulnerable people so that their names could be redacted: "They refused to assist." In all the coverage so far, only CBS' Martin mentioned an example of such jeopardy: an unnamed onetime Iranian fencing champion.

It was more the concept that the nation's secrets could be disseminated that was disturbing rather than the secrets themselves. ABC anchor Diane Sawyer introduced us to the leaks with this question: "What in them is dangerous for the United States and what is merely embarrassing?" It apparently did not occur to her to wonder whether any of the content was interesting or informative, an omission that is abnormal for a journalist. NBC anchor Brian Williams predicted that the leak "will no doubt hurt the ability of the United States to do business around the world," although he did not explain his certainty. "Every day there is new diplomatic damage done," he declared later, without offering specifics.

When Attorney General Eric Holder found "a predicate for us to believe that crimes have been committed here," he failed to impress NBC's Pete Williams: "When it comes to the Website there is no federal law that explicitly covers something like this." From the White House, CBS' Reid heard press secretary Robert Gibbs call the Website criminal, "finding WikiLeaks guilty before charges have even been filed." It was not clear what laws had been broken and the networks continued to cite the leaks as legitimate sources in their reporting. It was difficult to reconcile outrage and utility, security and transparency, secrecy and publicity, simultaneously.

JULIAN ASSANGE TO THE RESCUE, VIA STIEG LARSSON This uneasiness was resolved in the figure of Julian Assange. CBS' Elizabeth Palmer had a premonition that the story would stop being about the State Department's conduct of foreign policy and about Assange himself when she interviewed him at London's Frontline press club. "You have become the story almost despite yourself," Palmer suggested. "I think we would like to hear what you have to say about that." "So you want me to become even more part of the story?" "I do."

NBC's Lisa Myers was an early one to shift the focus away from the actual cables. She filed a profile of Assange in which she quoted an unidentified "US official" insulting him as "very anti-American and a deeply disturbed and dangerous individual." Myers claimed that "he is on the run" one day and, despite his lawyer's assertion that police knew his whereabouts, depicted him as "living the life of a fugitive," the next. Then Myers interviewed the Stockholm lawyer who represents the two anonymous women who have filed sexual-molestation charges against Assange. "They have been abused," he asserted even as "he would not discuss details of the incident."

In short order, there were two tracks to the WikiLeaks story: the warrant for Assange's arrest; and global cyber warfare. With its Scandinavian setting and its mix of sex and hacking, this narrative could be covered as a thriller rather than an abstract dilemma of national security media ethics. CBS' Palmer forecast that Assange would fight extradition to Stockholm "in case the Swedes, under political pressure, turn him over to the United States."

Highlights included the overblown drama of the Interpol warrant for Assange's arrest and the sketchy details of Assange's alleged sexual indiscretions, indiscretions that may or may not be criminal, consensual that "turned non-consensual," as ABC's Sciutto put it, spelling out accusations of absent condoms, forcibly parted legs and fucking while sleeping.

The WikiLeaks Website was taken down "under constant cyberassault," as ABC's Sciutto put it. It lost its server and then "popped back up again with new addresses," CBS' Palmer pointed out. It set up "mushrooming" mirror sites, according to NBC's Peter Alexander. It lost its payment system--MasterCard, VISA and PayPal--and its Swiss bank account was frozen. It distributed password-protected supersecrets to hundreds of supporters worldwide--"encrypted with a code so strong it is unbreakable, even by governments," CBS' Palmer marveled. It had supportive hackers--"hactivists," as CBS' Mark Phillips dubbed them--launch counter attacks on its behalf.

Check out a pair of reports on CBS, Palmer on the initial attack and Phillips on the response. Zombie Armies on the March!

Thank goodness for those Dragon Tattoo/Playing with Fire/Hornet's Nest scenarios! Denial of service attacks and extradition proceedings…mirror Websites and unprotected sex…password-protected insurance files and honey traps. As long as the story was about Swedish prosecutors, cybersleuthing and sexual molestation then the network news divisions did not have to gaze too scrupulously into their navels to work out how much government secrecy and transparency they actually wanted after all.