On NPR, N.Y. Times Editor Bill Keller Defends the 'Value' of WikiLeaks: Their Info's 'Absolutely Fascinating'

On NPR's weekend show On The Media (produced by radio station WNYC), New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller reacted badly to NPR's Bob Garfield suggesting Julian Assange of WikiLeaks was a "looter" or a smasher of windows. Keller insisted the document dump has "more value" than that metaphor, that the dump is "absolutely fascinating...like a graduate seminar" on international relations.  It's a "ridiculous standard" to insist these finds must be Earth-shattering to be a positive development:

BOB GARFIELD: Now, the stories so far have been revealing but unsurprising, it seems to me, and not especially indicting. It’s made me wonder whether WikiLeaks is a legitimate whistleblower in this case or just a looter. Has Julian Assange shed light here with the release of 253,000 cables or has he just smashed a very big store window?

BILL KELLER: I think that the documents have more value than your metaphor gives them credit for.

I mean, realistically, you know, 99 percent of what you read in the newspaper or hear on the radio in news programs does not fundamentally upend your understanding of the world; it’s incremental. And so, the idea that this data dump has to somehow expose unsuspected perfidy in high places or completely confound your understanding of how the world works is, to me, a, a kind of ridiculous standard.

I think this stuff is absolutely fascinating and, you know, reading these stories is kind of like a graduate seminar in how we relate to Russia, how the Arab world relates to Iran, and so on.

As for the Times professionals working their way through this potential minefield of American lives (and the lives of U.S. intelligence assets), Keller boasted "it was a familiar but quite complicated exercise in journalistic choreography." The graceful, balletic movements of journalistic prima donnas should be applauded, not questioned. The Times would somehow never endanger a single American life, despite their record during the Bush years of compromising terror-fighting programs with front-page scoops. They won Pulitzer Prizes, and the anti-terror programs were shredded. 

Garfield asked Keller if the Times worried that its Wiki-leaked story on the Koreas might gause North Korea to act out aggressively. Keller tried a defense of ignorance, that Kim Jong Il is too crazy to predict, and to try and prevent issuing a story that causes bombs to drop is "really kind of beyond my understanding."  

GARFIELD: On the subject of embarrassing people, the one story, the one revelation that has most gotten my attention is about the relationship between China and North Korea, and the cable from a South Korean diplomat which suggests that China would be just fine with a single unified Korea under South Korean control, so long as no U.S. troops were in the former demilitarized zone. You know, when you’re talking about a cornered rat regime such as North Korea’s, with a history of acting out when it’s in a situation like this, you know, my thought was could this revelation not just embarrass them but really trigger something catastrophic? Did it come up? Did you have those discussions?

KELLER: We did have those kinds of discussions and, you know, that’s where the value of having journalists who've covered these stories over the years supply some context, try to truth test, is useful, rather than just having raw data sitting up on a website for people to come explore.

As we presented it, this is the view of a South Korean diplomat. They believe that if North Korea collapsed and the Koreas reunited, China could live with that, which is interesting but I don't think particularly provocative. I mean, you know, without any provocation from us or WikiLeaks, North Korea apparently fired on a South Korean ship and more recently lobbed artillery onto a South Korean island, so, you know, what the North Koreans are likely to do or exactly what provokes them is really kind of beyond my understanding.

Like Time editor Richard Stengel, Keller doesn't feel the need for the press to keep many secrets (unless, of course, instead of exposing our foreign policy, someone's exposing the sexual infidelities of a Clinton or Edwards.) Garfield implied that the Pentagon warmakers should be exposed, but the secrets of the diplomatic peacemakers should be protected:

GARFIELD: In the United States we have seen things like the willy-nilly classification of documents and the invocation of national security at every turn to cover up political embarrassment, or worse. But diplomacy is another matter altogether. Is it ever just plain inappropriate for a newspaper to disclose diplomatic secrets?

KELLER: Look, I absolutely believe that governments have an obligation to keep certain things secret, you know, not just diplomacy – military operations, the codes to the nuclear weapons. I mean, there are lots of things that governments have the right to keep secret. It’s their job to keep it secret. It’s not the press’s job to do that.

And when they, for one reason or another, fail to do that, either through something like WikiLeaks or because everybody at the White House is blabbing to Bob Woodward, you know, then we have a choice to make about what we do with those secrets. We do sometimes withhold them but, you know, it’s a choice you have to make case by case.

Every time the national newspapers or networks dismiss a conservative group as "self-appointed," remember how these editors are self-appointed Secretaries of State, deciding how to manipulate information to nudge U.S. policy in a direction they favor. In conclusion, Garfield set up Keller to deny that they are a tool of WikiLeaks or their leader Julian Assange, who hates America:

GARFIELD: [Y]ou have worked with the organization in what I believe you've described more as a reporter/source relationship. And you've rejected entirely the idea that it is any kind of partnership. But in doing business with Julian Assange, who is nearly indiscriminate in what he will post, does The Times and The Guardian and Der Spiegel and El Pais, do they become enablers of an organization that may or may not be itself neutral in going about doing what it’s doing?

KELLER: I don't think so, except in the sense that any time you publish information from a source you’re giving them, you know, a megaphone, I guess. But I do sincerely believe that the relationship is very much the traditional one of source and journalist. He supplied a lot of raw material and, except for the timing of the release, which was something that we worked out as much with the other news organizations as with WikiLeaks, there was no discussion of what we would write, no discussion of an agenda that we were trying to serve. And, in fact, judging by some of the things that Mr. Assange has said about The New York Times, he certainly doesn't regard us as an institution that shares his agenda.

Since this is NPR, Garfield doesn't really point out that The Times and The Guardian (of Britain), Der Spiegel (of Germany) and El Pais (of Spain) are all fans of WikiLeaks because they're fashionably leftist and like frustrating the presumptive villainy of the "military-industrial complex." Keller would appear to have more ardor about the "value" of WikiLeaks than he does about the American war on terror.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis