WikiLeaks was supposed to change the world. The pundits said that diplomacy and the media would never be the same again, and knee-jerk anti-Americans hoped that the superpower would be humbled. But three weeks later only the occasional sensational leak or reports about accusations of sexual misconduct against Julian Assange keep WikiLeaks from being squeezed off the world’s front pages by more pressing local news.
To some extent, the arc of the WikiLeaks story reflects the nature of the public’s attention-span in an era of instant and ever-changing information. Very few people are able or willing to sustain interest in a lengthy series of investigative stories about multiple countries, and humans have always preferred gossip anyway. But the rapid rise and fall of WikiLeaks also tells us something else: the rules of the information game have not really changed.
Despite its fresh methods and its promise of radical openness, WikiLeaks’s early releases were almost completely unnoticed before it linked up with newspapers in Europe and the US for its Afghan war leaks earlier this year. The group’s first serious coup (in 2007) was its release and analysis of a sizeable set of documents detailing almost the complete US military procurement chains for the Iraq and Afghan wars, a sizeable scoop for a news organisation of any size. But almost no one noticed it. Without the muscle (and staff hours) of the mainstream media, the same might have been true of the Afghanistan, Iraq and embassy cables leaks.
The world’s major newspapers have taken a different, more traditional view of the balance between openness and responsibility than WikiLeaks does. They have chosen to present less than one percent of the embassy cables, redacting the documents they published and declining to make public information that they felt endangered national security or the lives of individuals. NYT went even further: it has shown redacted versions of the documents to the
US government before putting them on the Web.
Perhaps more seriously for WikiLeaks, the newspapers’ ability to explain and contextualise the embassy cables has left no room for the (often slightly paranoid) annotations and commentary that group was accustomed to attaching to its earlier releases. Even more ominously, the print media has already begun to close ranks against the organisation: London’s Guardian newspaper shared its copies of the cables with NYT even though WikiLeaks had dropped it as a partner (some say because of the newspaper’s unflattering