Expert analysis has characterized news media coverage of WikiLeaks as being poor, inadequate and more akin to soap opera-style tabloid journalism rather than serious reporting, writes Andrew Kennis.
War crimes, which deliberately targeted and killed civilians; covert bribery and spying to undermine progress on global warming and to lessen opposition by poor countries the most afflicted by climate change; under-reporting of thousands upon thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilian casualties; US knowledge of and inaction against the torture of Egyptian and Iraqi detainees, as well as active support for the “extraordinary rendition” program; secretly authorized air strikes in Yemen and combat operations by special forces in Pakistan resulting in civilian deaths.
Four major leaks, which included one harrowing video and a trove of classified military documents released by the online whistleblowing site, WikiLeaks, revealed these troubling instances and much more. Secret internal communications and documents displayed actions that stood in stark contrast to past US public proclamations on important foreign policies.
Through interviews with Truthout, experts and members of the public interest community characterized news media coverage of WikiLeaks as being poor, inadequate and more akin to soap opera-ish tabloid coverage rather than serious journalism assessing revelations of US foreign policy abuses. When news coverage was more serious, a friendly frame of reference to successive US administrations was often used, with concerns about the standing of US diplomacy – not its revealed disregard for democratic values – taking front and center.
Unsurprisingly, reactions to WikiLeaks from the Obama administration officials have been rife with charges of “cyber-terrorism” and contradictory stances that the WikiLeaks’ revelations did not contain anything new or important, but somehow also inflicted significant damage upon US diplomatic relationships.
Supporters of WikiLeaks also counter such claims by pointing to recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Iran, Bahrain and Libya. With the toppling of Tunisia having first occurred, many pointed to it as having sparked the protests in Egypt, which also resulted in a historic resignation of yet another long-time US-backed dictator.
Simultaneously coinciding with protests in Tahrir Square, many revelations were published which detailed a long and sordid history of US support, knowledge of and involvement in the human rights violations systematically committed by the Mubarak regime it supported. US financial and diplomatic support for Egypt has been greater than that of any other nation in the world – with the exception of Israel – for decades.
Julian Assange himself did not shy away from drawing connections between the successful Tunisian uprising and WikiLeaks. Unsurprisingly, the State Department rejects such connections, as its lead spokesperson, P.J. Crowley, proclaimed simply in a Tweet from his feed: “Tunisia is not a Wiki revolution.” What is not in doubt, however, is that the Tunisian protests preceded what has been described as a “rolling rebellion” throughout the region, and that the leaks were prominently published in an Arab-language, Lebanon-based newspaper.
Relevant questions should be raised about US news media coverage and its responsibility in delivering information to help the populace – both in the US and beyond – settle these controversial topics. What were the most important revelations published by WikiLeaks and their significance as a whole? How have the news media addressed these questions?
A detailed investigation by Truthout into news media coverage was undertaken to assess media coverage. All leading and major US-based press sources were reviewed, as well as coverage appearing on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN and MSNBC.
Analyses revealed that reporting generally fell sharply in line with stances taken by government officials, as most accounts deemed that WikiLeaks did not reveal anything new and was only important to the extent that it impacted administration priorities. US-based news media manifested greater interest in the details and intrigues behind sex allegations against Assange, as well as personalized accounts of him. More attention was also given toward what could be learned about non-US countries, as opposed to US policies and the stances of US diplomats.
Soap Opera Coverage
Peter Phillips, the founder of the media watchdog program Project Censored, described news media coverage on WikiLeaks as largely being that of a “soap opera.” Phillips criticized coverage for prioritizing “sexual exposés and Julian Assange’s trial,” over that of more substantive issues related to WikiLeaks revelations. “What we’re seeing in corporate America is managed news that is in closer cooperation with the Pentagon, State Department and the White House,” bemoaned Phillips, “and cooperating with them on how they want it spun as opposed to reporting it in an independent fashion.”
Leading coverage by the nation’s most important news outlets, particularly that of The New York Times, which was the only US-based publication to be privy to the leaked documents before their public release by WikiLeaks, confirms these criticisms.
In the wake of the largest single leak of secret military documents on Iraq, The New York Times chose to lead with a long story on Assange, criticized as a “sleazy hit piece” by investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald. The author of the story drew the ire of readers to the point of subsequently remarking to Yahoo! News that he had never previously “been the subject of such absolutely, relentless vituperation” during the course of his 35-year career at the Times. The personalized article resembled another New York Times front-page story, filed in the August wake of the publication of the Afghan War logs. The article focused on the personal intrigues and childhood development of Bradley Manning, describing him as a “geek” and the victim of being made fun of for being “gay.”
In a long think piece published in The New York Times, its executive editor described relations between his publication and WikiLeaks as being “rocky” at various important points. Further, Assange himself was characterized as “arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.”
The New York Times was far from the only news outlet guilty of spilling a lot of ink on personalized accounts of Assange and related parties at the expense of more substantive coverage. Much news media attention was given by US-based outlets toward an arrest warrant issued for Assange, described as an “international manhunt” by NBC. Coverage offered up dramatic details and allusions to how, “Assange reportedly altered his appearance, dying his unmistakable white hair and uses encrypted cell phones to avoid being tracked” (NBC News, December 2).
Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and regular columnist for ConsortiumNews.com, took issue with the often voiced media characterization that WikiLeaks’ revelations are neither important nor novel: “I’ve been in Washington for 48 years and I have seen a lot of change. But this one sea change dwarfs all others in significance.” However, McGovern also expressed disappointment at press coverage of the information released, stating: “Unfortunately though, we no longer have press that is independent enough to cover the most important parts of it.”
Does McGovern’s media characterization hold water when coverage is closely examined? Investigating US-press coverage on the most important revelations revealed a range between sparse to nonexistent reporting, coupled with news accounts which played down the significance of those leaks which most implicated US policy makers.
Egypt and WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks released a batch of diplomatic cables during the height of the protests in Egypt, mostly between January 31 and February 3. In the releases, diplomatic cables acknowledged a long history of US support for the Mubarak dictatorship despite its contempt for human rights.Omar Suleiman, anointed vice president by Mubarak in the midst of the protests, was the point person in the “extraordinary rendition” program between Egypt and the CIA. Critics have dubbed the program “torture by proxy,” as suspects of interest to the US were detained without charge and interrogated in Egypt. Cables termed the record of abuses stemming from this program, “most successful.”
Other cables reveal awareness at the highest levels of the US government of an assortment of repressive measures undertaken by the Mubarak regime, all mentioned without objection and often noted with outright support. These include: systematic torture against suspected political opponents, described as “endemic” and “widespread“; intimidation, harassment and imprisonment of Egyptian bloggers; round-ups of suspects by police who hung them by their arms from ceilings for weeks on end; the monitoring and harassment of a plethora of non-governmental organizations; and impunity for state personnel undertaking torture and other abuses.
Criticism, much less discussion of these cables, was noticeably absent in US press coverage. In a rare instance of a mention even being made of the leaked cables, CNN’s prime-time news program (6 PM EST, February 6) chose instead to feature Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and an expert who went to lengths to justify continued US aid to the Mubarak regime during the height of the protests. Both anchor Don Lemon and reporter Chris Lawrence parroted such sentiments:
Lemon: Chris, cutting that funding really, it’s not that easy, is it?
Lawrence: No, no, not at all. I mean, Don, $1 billion is one heck of a trump card, but to actually play it, that could push the US right out of the game. And you’ve got to remember, no matter what sort of civilian government eventually takes power in Egypt, it’s a safe bet that the Egyptian military is going to be a major force in that country – and that’s what this money is going directly for, the Egyptian military.
Along similar lines, instead of noting or criticizing the US refusal to use aid as a bargaining chip to lessen or eliminate human rights violations, The Washington Post dug deep into the cables in an attempt to find a few instances where officials claimed to have asked Mubarak to do as much. Instead of describing the most troublesome cables related to support and knowledge of systematic human rights violations, the Post merely noted in a back-page article, “US diplomats for years have been aware of Mubarak’s views and Egypt’s problems.” Going farther, the Post reported a justification for such awareness, by noting the purported, “limited impact that US diplomacy can have on a country” (February 8).
The release of a leaked and encrypted video cracked by WikiLeaks and entitled “Collateral Murder” was arguably the most explosive single release that was ever published by the online-based outlet. Many point to the leak as being what put WikiLeaks “on the map.”
In the video, several US soldiers were shown from their Apache helicopter to have callously gunned down Iraqi civilians and several Reuters journalists. The killings occurred in July 2007 during daytime hours in a Baghdad neighborhood.
The video release drew instant criticism from prominent whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who stated at the time: “the killing of men who are lying on the ground in an operation where ground troops are approaching and perfectly capable of taking those people captive, but meanwhile you’re murdering before the troops arrive. That’s a violation of the laws of war and of course what the mainstream media have omitted from their stories is this context”.
No major US-based news outlet seriously explored the extent to which the video depicted war crimes. The most thorough US-based mainstream media coverage came from The New York Times, which nonetheless failed to mention “war crimes” in any of its three reports on the incident (two on April 7, “Airstrike Video Brings Attention to Whistle-Blower Site” and “For 2 Grieving Families, Video Reveals Grim Truth,” and an April 6 piece, “Video Shows US Killing of Reuters Employees.”
“Collateral Murder” attracted well over four million YouTube viewings at the time and now totals close to 11 million. However, not only was the context missing in much media coverage, even the actual killing in the video itself was not initially aired on CNN, nor was the attack on the rescue van, which killed the rescuers and critically injured several children reported (April 5). When a larger portion of the video was shown on the next day, it was only done so with a former general who had a long history of “explaining” away human rights violations, who did as much in this instance as well.
Nothing New or Important Except Impressive Diplomacy?
A subtle justification for news attention on inconsequential matters was offered by US-based news media through press claims that the actual WikiLeaks’ revelations did not contain especially “new” or “important” information. Such descriptions, however, are disturbingly consistent with governmental positioning. Nevertheless, this was a common refrain in mainstream news media coverage.
The Associated Press (AP) wrote on November 29 that, “none of the disclosures appeared particularly explosive.” Another AP piece quipped, “US, Canada are close allies. That’s classified?” (December 9), while yet another parroted official concerns about a tarnished image, diplomatically speaking (“WikiLeaks has hurt US foreign relations,” December 7).
In this vein, a number of news outlets, as the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) went to lengths to document, went so far as to interpret the leaks as revealing desirable traits of US foreign policy making. Time published a piece (“WikiLeaks Shows the Skills of US Diplomats,” December 2) which referred to WikiLeaks’ revelations as being “actually quite reassuring about the way Washington – or at least the State Department – works.” The Washington Post ran an article which claimed that the leaks show how, “US diplomats pursue pretty much the same goals in private as they do in public” (December 7). The New York Times described revelations about Obama’s foreign policy approach and “American diplomacy” as being nothing short of “rather impressive” (December 5) and “admirable” (November 30).
Given these mainstream news media realities, it is perhaps unsurprising that on the other end of the media spectrum, some conservative-leaning foreign policy analysts have gone so far to suggest that the Obama administration may have leaked the cables themselves. In this vein, a columnist for The National Interest questioned whether WikiLeaks was, “a carefully orchestrated plot by the American government,” because of how the leaks clearly “create a comforting feeling among the American public that officials aren’t asleep at the switch.”
Importance of Revelations in Iraq, and Afghan War Logs Diminished or Uncovered
One of the major revelations from the Iraq war logs, which totaled over 400,000 secret military documents, was that torture of Iraqi detainees received tacit authorization by US authorities. US news media once again failed to highlight culpability when it came to contextualizing what the cables revealed. Clear references to the possibility that war crimes were committed was marginalized in coverage or disregarded altogether. Of all major US-dailies, only The Los Angeles Times led its cover (October 23) with a feature on the US authorization of torture, also noting as much in a follow-up piece (October 24). Concerns by Amnesty International about war crimes were quoted, but only at the tail end of a front-page story. Aside from a vague reference in a Washington Post, back-page article (October 24), human rights representatives were otherwise shut out of most US news media coverage on this topic.
With the release of the war logs, WikiLeaks revealed about 15,000 unreported Iraqi civilian casualties as well as the Pentagon’s knowledge of those casualties. The same knowledge of unreported civilian casualties was true in Afghanistan as well, as shown by the Afghan War Logs released on July 25. US news media failed to cover or emphasize these unreported casualties and their implication, which stood in stark contrast to European press coverage.
The unreported Iraqi civilian fatalities were positioned at the very last paragraph of a lead piece appearing in The Washington Post shortly after the release of the war logs (October 24). Similarly and as FAIR duly pointed out, civilian deaths were not mentioned in the lead article of The New York Times until the tenth paragraph, while a Guardian UK piece led with the problem. Still worse, FAIR showed how several outlets (CBS and Washington Post, July 27) mistakenly reported that only 195 deaths were revealed by the Afghan War Logs, as if the figure was a “ceiling” or comprehensive figure for all civilian deaths (in actuality, credible estimates pin the number at being no less than several thousand non-combatant deaths).
Unreported or Underreported: Secret Combat Operations in Yemen and Pakistan
Writing for the nonprofit and independent magazine, The Nation, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill gave a devastating account (December 1, 2010), referencing revelations from CableGate, of how the US had actively collaborated with Pakistan to facilitate US Special Forces undertaking “offensive combat operations” in spite of having claimed otherwise to the press on several occasions (including one instance in which Scahill’s own prior reporting was labeled “conspiratorial” by a Pentagon spokesperson).
The details of Scahill’s scoop were not picked up by major US news media, which instead focused on the culpability at the Pakistani end of the spectrum, a common refrain in much WikiLeaks news coverage, as the actions of other countries captured much more ink than those of US leaders. Several stories noted how high-ranking Pakistan officials authorized drone strikes and lied to the Pakistani public about them (CNN, “WikiLeaks: Pakistan quietly approved drone attacks, US special units,” December 1; Los Angeles Times, “Cables reveal US misgivings about Pakistan,” December 3; Washington Post, “In cables from Pakistan, US struggles for Leverage,” December 7), as opposed to focusing on how US officials lied to their own people.
While Pakistan was revealed to have secret US military combat operations, Yemen was revealed to have secretly authorized US airstrikes, also resulting in civilian deaths. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen was shown to have assured US officials that Yemeni forces would take credit for US military airstrikes and any related civilian deaths. As reported by Salon, the US has long (falsely) denied such arrangements, since exposed by WikiLeaks. Has US news media criticized this false posturing about US airstrikes undertaken secretly abroad?
The only article to have covered this story was an AP wire piece (“US: WikiLeaks has hurt US foreign relations,” December 7) passed up by most news outlets. Even so, the piece itself did not mention the fact that dozens of civilians had died in the US airstrikes and instead, highlighted the concern that the released cable may have hurt US diplomatic relations (which, as already noted, was a very common refrain in US news coverage). Instead of quoting the human rights community and exploring the disturbing legal and human rights implications of such a revelation, major media outlets largely decided to forgo reporting the issue altogether. A long New York Times think piece (December 5) did make a passing mention of the then-secret and lied-about arrangement, but did so without raising any objections. This was the same piece that referred to how “American diplomacy looked rather impressive.”
Revelations Concerning Dubious Climate Change “Diplomacy,” Unreported
While coverage and exploration of possible war crimes revealed by WikiLeaks was sparse or nonexistent, there was a US news media blackout altogether on the issue of climate change and related revelations from “CableGate,” which first started being released on November 30. Diplomatic cables clearly exposed how US diplomats worked behind the scenes dangling billion-dollar offers of financial aid to the countries most vulnerable to climate change, sending out diplomats on spy missions and isolating the president of the European Union and his efforts to bring about a more stringent accord against global warming. Through a detailed investigation of the issues raised by diplomatic cables (see here, here, and here), the Guardian elucidated this double dealing to an extent that no US news media outlet duplicated. In fact, no mainstream US news media outlet even reported the story.
This investigation, coupled with interviews of leading experts and critical analysts, reveals a laundry list of media failings: a soap opera accounting of Assange and overpersonalization of a substantive and serious story; systematic oversight or underreporting of the most serious revelations from WikiLeaks; a failure to explore the many possible war crimes revealed and the related duplicitous behavior of high-ranking public officials; and lastly, a heightened focus on the behavior of officials from other nations at the expense of a focus on US official culpability. A media performance along these lines, on what was arguably the most important news story of the year, presents troubling implications in terms of US mainstream media holding foreign policy makers accountable to the law and to the public they purport to represent.
* * * * *
The Ten Most Important Revelations of 2010, by WikiLeaks
The following is a list of the most important revelations by WikiLeaks, in terms of the severity of the revelation. Most US-based news media attention did not squarely focus on these revelations, much less the extent that US culpability was at play in relation to deeply flawed US foreign policy making.
1) Deliberate Civilian Killings, War Crimes
War crimes were revealed in an otherwise overlooked and underheralded video in April, providing Pentagon awareness coupled with a lack of action about a serious violation of the Geneva accords.
The Guardian UK, April 5, 2010: WikiLeaks reveals video showing US air crew shooting down Iraqi civilians; Footage of July 2007 attack made public as Pentagon identifies web site as threat to national security.
2) Underreporting of Iraqi and Afghan Civilian Casualties
Thousands upon thousands of unreported Iraqi civilian casualties were revealed, along with Pentagon knowledge about as much. To a lesser but nonetheless important degree, the same was the case with Afghan civilian casualties as well.
3) US Bribed Countries and Surveilled Diplomats to Undermine Climate Change Talks
Environmentalists around the world have criticized the Copenhagen Accords for having been a watered down version of what is necessary in order to prevent climate change and global warming from continuing to take course and worsen. Diplomatic cables revealed that the US undermined opposition to US policies on climate change by undertaking strong-armed tactics including bribery and surveillance.
The Guardian, December 3, 2010:
WikiLeaks cables reveal how US manipulated the climate accord; Embassy dispatches show America used spying, threats and promises of aid to get support for Copenhagen accord.
- WikiLeaks cables: Cancún climate talks doomed to fail, says EU president.
- Cancún climate change summit: Week one in pictures.
3) Iraq Torture Authorized
Torture authorization by the US for Iraqi authorities, as well as lists of secret torture sites, were revealed as were lies related to both matters.
The Guardian, October 22, 2010:
Iraq war logs: secret files show how US ignored torture.
- Massive leak reveals serial detainee abuse, 15,000 unknown civilian deaths in war.
4) Awareness of Illegality of Coup in Honduras
Embassy accounts revealing awareness of an illegal coup in Honduras were unearthed, despite official positions to the contrary of this accounting.
FAIR described the matter in the following terms: “The US ambassador to Honduras concluded that the 2009 removal of president Manuel Zelaya was indeed a coup, and that backers of this action provided no compelling evidence to support their legal claims (Robert Naiman, Just Foreign Policy, 11/29/10). Despite the conclusions reached in the cable, official US statements remained ambiguous. If the Obama administration had reached the same conclusion in public as was made in the cable, the outcome of the coup might have been very different.”
Also, the Center for Constitutional Rights has a detailed legal analysis of this important revelation.
5) Task Force 373
The existence of a secret task force was officially confirmed and its operations was revealed to have resulted in dozens of civilian casualties and injuries, as opposed to successful “captures” or “kills” from a list of purported insurgents. Importantly, the task force was revealed to have been reporting directly to the White House.
Al Jazeera, October 2010, searching for accountability: As WikiLeaks prepares to release more documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will greater accountability follow?
The Guardian, July 25, 2010:
Afghanistan war logs: Task Force 373 – special forces hunting top Taliban; Previously hidden details of US-led unit sent to kill top insurgent targets are revealed for the first time.
6) Secret Special Forces Operations Inside Pakistan
The US’s longest running military operation is its occupation of Afghanistan, the “long war” as many analysts and observers have come to call it. Diplomatic cables, however, pointed toward aggressive US military activities which continue to go largely unacknowledged. Pakistan is not only regularly subjected to drone attacks, it was revealed, but also to activities by US secret special force unites operating inside the country.
The Nation, Jeremy Scahill, “The (Not So) Secret (Anymore) US War in Pakistan.”
7) Secret Air Strikes in Yemen Resulting in Civilian Deaths
While secret US forces are operating in Pakistan, secret airstrikes resulted in the deaths of a litany of civilians in Yemen. FAIR described the matter in the following terms, referencing an article run in Salon.com:
FAIR: “WikiLeaks coverage has often emphasized that Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh reassured US officials that he would claim US military airstrikes in his country were the work of Yemeni forces. But as Justin Elliot pointed out (Salon, 12/7/10), the United States has long denied carrying out airstrikes in the country at all. The secret attacks have killed scores of civilians.”
Salon: “The Obama administration has secretly launched missile attacks on suspected terrorists in Yemen, with the Yemeni government taking responsibility and consistently lying about it. While the attacks have drawn relatively little public attention, dozens of civilians along with some suspected terrorists have reportedly been killed.” Salon’s account of the Yemen revelation is here. The January 2010 cable describing a meeting between Yemen’s president and Gen. David Petraeus is here.
8) and 9) US Illegally Interferes With Spanish and German Judicial Systems
Judicial interference was revealed in the case of a Spanish journalist who was killed in Iraq, and also in the German legal system. FAIR described both matters, while referencing articles run in Harpers, El Pais (a Spain daily) and The New York Times, accordingly:
FAIR: “The US worked to obstruct Spanish government investigations into the killing of a Spanish journalist in Iraq by US forces, the use of Spanish airfields for the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program and torture of Spanish detainees at Guantánamo” (El Pais, 12/2/10; Scott Horton, Harpers.org, 12/1/10.
FAIR: “The US attempted to prevent German authorities from acting on arrest warrants against 13 CIA officers who were instrumental in the abduction and subsequent torture of German citizen Khaled El-Masri.” (Scott Horton, Harpers.org, 11/29/10.; New York Times, 12/9/10.)
10) War Crime: Highway Rampage Revealed
A highway rampage by US soldiers in Afghanistan, full of civilian casualties and deaths to children and the elderly was revealed, including details that were lied about and suppressed.
The Guardian, July 26, 2010:
Afghanistan war logs: How US marines sanitized record of bloodbath. War logs show how marines gave cleaned up accounts of incident in which they killed 19 civilians.
Al Jazeera, October 2010, searching for accountability: As WikiLeaks prepares to release more documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will greater accountability follow?
2011 Cables Related to Tunisia, Egypt, Appear to Have Significant Impact
While these ten sets of revelations led 2010 in terms of the most important WikiLeaks releases, arguably the most important release WikiLeaks has ever published were cables related to Tunisia and Egypt. This is because of the subsequent impact, which supporters maintain the cables accomplished. Assange himself, told an Australian broadcaster, “It does seem to be the case that material that we published through a Lebanese newspaper was significantly influential to what happened in Tunisia … [and] there’s no doubt that Tunisia was THE example for Egypt, and Yemen and Jordan and all the protests that have happened there.” (See here.)