Perusing the papers today, I see that a battle is raging over whether WikiLeaks is a force of good or evil. In my mind, it's too early to say. But what is clear to me is that any newspaper worthy of the name had no choice but to publish the cables it has released. And that, in many cases, these documents add to our understanding.
Ironically, one area in which the documents add to our understanding is in the operation of the media themselves. Specifically, on the issue of bias in the media.
Though troubling to many people, bias in the media is not always due to some dark plot - political or economic. In fact, it is inevitable. And the WikiLeaks document dump provides the perfect case study to prove the point.
Of all the newspapers in the world, four were provided privileged access by WikiLeaks to the diplomatic cables; in return, these newspapers promised to spread out and co-ordinate their publication dates on major issues. One paper, the Guardian, agreed to share the documents it received with the New York Times, which had refused WikiLeaks's offer this time, though not on two previous occasions.
Both of these newspapers are generally considered to be quality broadsheets. Both would fairly be described as being on the liberal end of the political spectrum. Both have had financial difficulties in recent years, but have striven to maintain their values in the current environment. And their Tuesday editions provide an excellent case study of media bias.
Lester Markel ran the Sunday sections of the New York Times for nearly 40 years until he retired in 1964. Here's how he once described the newsgathering process:
"The reporter, the most objective reporter, collects 50 facts. Out of the 50 he selects 12 to include in his story (there is such a thing as space limitation) ... [and]discards 38. This is Judgment Number One.
"Then the reporter or editor decides which of the facts shall be the first paragraph of the story, thus emphasizing one fact above the other 11. This is Judgment Number Two.
"Then the editor decides whether the story shall be placed on Page One or Page 12; on Page One it will command many times the attention it would on Page 12. This is Judgment Number Three.
"This so-called factual presentation is thus subjected to three judgments, all of them most humanly and most ungodly made."
On the front page of today's New York Times, under the headline "America Prods and Protests But Can't halt Arms Trade," one reads the following report:
Just a week after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria assured a top State Department official that his government was not sending sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, the Obama administration lodged a confidential protest accusing Syria of doing precisely what it had denied doing.
"In our meetings last week it was stated that Syria is not transferring any 'new' missiles to Lebanese Hezballah," noted a cable sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in February, using an alternative spelling for the militant group. "We are aware, however, of current Syrian efforts to supply Hezballah with ballistic missiles. I must stress that this activity is of deep concern to my government, and we strongly caution you against such a serious escalation."
A senior Syrian Foreign Ministry official, a cable from the American Embassy in Damascus reported, flatly denied the allegation. But nine months later, administration officials assert, the flow of arms had continued to Hezbollah. According to a Pentagon official, Hezbollah's arsenal now includes up to 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and most of Israel, and 10 Scud-D missiles. The newly fortified Hezbollah has raised fears that any future conflict with Israel could erupt into a full-scale regional war.
The New York Times article continues on an inside page where it features a colour photograph captioned: "July 6, 2007 | QALAWAYEH, LEBANON | A model of a Katyusha rocket launcher and a billboard promoting Hezbollah, the militant and political group. Leaked cables reveal American diplomats' distress over the flow of arms to Hezbollah."
In contrast, the Guardian report of the arms trade cables is on Page 6 of today's edition and is headlined "US used Israel intelligence to block arms from Iran and Syria." It is accompanied by a colour photo captioned: "Palestinian civilians and medics run for safety as Israeli missiles fall in Beit Lahia in the Cast Lead offensive in January 2009." And the report - written by Mideast editor Ian Black - differs so markedly from that in the New York Times - both in what it includes and what it omits - that you have to wonder whether the two sets of first-rate journalists were reading the same cables:
The US has worked discreetly to block the supply of Iranian and Syrian weapons to the Palestinian movement Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, pressuring Arab governments not to co-operate - in many cases where the requests were based on secret intelligence provided by Israel.
State department cables released by WikiLeaks show that Sudan was warned by the US in January 2009 not to allow the delivery of unspecified Iranian arms that were expected to be passed to Hamas in the Gaza Strip around the time of Israel's Cast Lead offensive, in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed.
US diplomats were instructed to express "exceptional concern" to the Khartoum authorities. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Chad were informed of the alleged Iranian plans and warned that any weapons deliveries would be in breach of UN resolutions banning Iranian arms exports.
Sudan's foreign minister told a US official his government's formal response would be that it was not permitting the import of weapons from Iran - only to be told that "a simple regurgitation of Sudan's previous denial would be unfortunate".
Months later the media reported that in mid-January Israeli planes mounted a long-range bombing attack on an arms convoy in Sudan's Red Sea province. The Sharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted a US official as saying Sudan had been warned in advance about the shipment.
State department documents record that Khartoum then privately accused the US of carrying out two air attacks in eastern Sudan: one in January 2009, with 43 dead and 17 vehicles destroyed, and another on 20 February, with 45 dead and 14 vehicles destroyed. "We assume that the planes that attacked us are your planes," a senior Sudanese official said. The US embassy in Khartoum then sought clarification from Washington. "Should this potentially explosive story somehow leak to the sensationalistic Sudanese press," the cable said, "it could very well turn our security situation here from bad to worse."