How to take a leak: unsolicited advice for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.

Media criticism.
July 28 2010 6:00 PM

How To Give (and Take) a Leak

Unsolicited advice for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

To call the torrent of information about the Afghanistan war released by WikiLeaks a mere leak is to insult the gods of hydrodynamics. This leak was a howling vortex of 92,000 individual reports, most of which were marked "secret."

Yet for all its volume and detail, the WikiLeaks collection hasn't wowed veteran military correspondent Tom Ricks, Slate's Fred Kaplan, a Mother Joneswriter who browsed similar data when he worked as a contractor in Iraq, or the Washington Post. The White House, members of the  House and Senate from both parties, and the Pentagon derided the document dump, with Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell summarizing the DoD's position by telling the Post that "the scale and the scope of this leak" was unprecedented but that "the content of it is neither new or illuminating."

The New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel were given the documents, recorded between January 2004 and December 2009, by WikiLeaks on the proviso that they would all hold their stories until July 25, at which point the organization would release the documents on the Web. But even the Times overview story on Page One seemed to downplay the significance of the WikiLeaks archive. It praised the documents for giving observers "an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war" and called them a "vivid reminder" that the Afghanistan war has been a second-class operation until recently. But that language signaled that the Times had not retrieved stop-the-presses, scoop-worthy material from the stash.

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After a big, two-day splash, the story is no longer on Page One of the Times, except for a mention in a piece about the House approving a war-funding bill. At this rate, the WikiLeaks shocker is evaporating faster than the Gulf of Mexico surface oil.

I don't subscribe to the "there's nothing new here" line. As a reader, I've found too much in the WikiLeaks gusher to drink in two or three sittings—and I'm just talking about thegallons and gallons of Times and Guardian coverage, not the flood of the 92,000 individual reports released by WikiLeaks.

The speed with which the press and the politicians have normalized the material as "nothing new" indicates that WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange may have miscalculated in his desire to get the biggest media bang. He's been meditating aloud for some time on how to maximize publicity for his material, complaining that media organizations have routinely ignored WikiLeaks postings because nobody gets exclusives on the released material. None would do a document dive for a story if that meant competing with other news organizations.

"When you release something to the world, its scarcity goes from zero to infinity" is how Assange put his complaint in a December interview. "There is not a good incentive for journalists to invest in pulling the material apart and writing up and placing it in context."

Then Assange came up with a plan to incentivize the press, as this piece by Clint Hendler of the Columbia Journalism Review reports today. Assange told Guardian reporter Nick Davies on June 22 that he was interested in giving the New York Times and the Guardian an advance look at some Afghanistan war material. (Later, he included Der Spiegel in the deal.) By setting an embargo date and giving these publications regional scoop rights, Assange hoped to achieve maximum impact.

But could Assange have milked the material to better effect? I think so. To begin with, and I'm repeating myself here, there was too much material for the newspapers and magazines to swallow on such a short deadline. The publications felt that way, too. As Hendler reports, they asked for and got a week extension on the original Assange embargo date. Perhaps he should have given the three publications—which shared notes about the material but not copy— another month. Lesson learned: Too much is sometimes worse than not enough.

By inundating readers with Assange's trove, the three news organization broke one of the sacred rules of journalism: If you have a big story—especially one based on a leak like this one—drip, drip, drip it out to your audience rather than showering them with it. The reader can absorb drips better than torrents. Leave the reader wanting more and then deliver the next day. Besides, a drip strategy requires the publication to determine what's most important in the story. Without looking, can you remember what the most significant part of the Afghanistan story is? The surface-to-air missile report? The stuff about Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence? I'm still dazed by it all. By pouring out the material so quickly, the press caused a flash flood that has already cleared. Lesson learned: Drip irrigation works better than a monsoon.

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