NYT public editor only perpetuates bad practices

His predecessors slammed the use of anonymity -- but the current one replicates it

Published November 1, 2010 3:30PM (EDT)

Controversy erupted last week over the New York Times's editorial decision to cover the WikiLeaks release of the Iraq War documents by prominently featuring a gossip article about Julian Assange's personality traits and alleged mental health conditions, and by downplaying (or, as Columbia Journalism Review put it, "whitewashing") the most damning revelations about U.S. conduct. Yesterday, that newspaper's new Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, purported to address the issue of the NYT's WikiLeaks coverage, but completely ignored those controversies (except to bolster the NYT's smear piece by denouncing Assange's "character" as "increasingly sketchy"). Instead, as NYTPicker points out, Brisbane violated the newspaper's own guidelines, as well as the urgent warnings of his three predecessors, by using anonymity in the most unjustifiable and journalistically reckless way possible. This is what he wrote:

To address the risk to troops and informants, The Times took pains to remove names and other information from the documents it published. Nevertheless, a retired Army general, who asked for anonymity to avoid bringing controversy to the civilian organization he now serves, said the field reports enable Al Qaeda and the Taliban to learn much about the operational practices and mind-set of the coalition's fighting forces.

"Analysis is not nearly as damaging as reports," he said, drawing a distinction between the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks material. Field reports like these make it possible "to get into the mind of the enemy. Anytime you do that you gain a tremendous advantage."

These are powerful arguments.

So here is the newspaper's alleged Voice of the Public -- intended to be a watchdog over its editorial behavior -- himself granting anonymity to a "retired Army general" to claim that WikiLeaks is helping "Al Qaeda and the Taliban" by releasing this material. It's so revealing how inherently hostile so many "journalists" are to disclosure of government secrets, how mindlessly receptive they are to baseless claims that such disclosures will endanger security, and how eager they are to use their platforms to give voice to anonymous military officials. Here, what possible justification exists for that anonymity?

Brisbane's excuse -- he "asked for anonymity to avoid bringing controversy to the civilian organization he now serves" -- is ludicrous. That would justify granting anonymity to every person who wanted to comment on some public dispute without accountability or repercussions. The idea that some "retired Army general" is going to be rendered deeply vulnerable by oh-so-bravely criticizing WikiLeaks on the ground that its leaks are helping The Terrorists -- about as conventional and establishment-serving an opinion as exists -- is laughable on its face. Indeed, Brisbane's entire column is devoted to nothing other than reciting that WikiLeaks-is-Endangering-Us! orthodoxy in the most imbalanced, one-sided manner possible, including by quoting Tom Ricks, the former war correspondent for The Washington Post, making the same accusation with his name attached. Brisbane does not include a single quote disputing this fear-mongering claim, nor does he address the central contradiction at its heart: how can it be simultaneously true that there is Nothing New in these documents and that the Iraq War leak endangers our National Security?

Journalistically speaking, allowing military officials to hide behind anonymity to disseminate the military establishment's party line is about as slothful, low, and corrupted a practice as exists. The fact that the NYT's Public Editor is now not only endorsing that tactic, but himself relying upon it, is a fairly strong statement about the uselessness of this position, at least when occupied by Arthur S. Brisbane. That he's doing so as part of his ritualistic spouting of tepid, formulaic, substance-free defenses of that newspaper makes it all the worse. It looks as though the Times got exactly the person they wanted for this job.

* * * * *

On Saturday night in Washington D.C, at the Online News Associations' Online Journalism Awards, I won the award for Best Commentary for a medium site, with this article on Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks specifically cited. I'm particularly glad that this was the piece that was cited, because it's an important reminder that we still do not nearly know the entire story about how and why Bradley Manning -- who is currently imprisoned in Quantico, Virginia -- ended up communicating with Adrian Lamo, when he allegedly confessed to being the source of the WikiLeaks documents.

As a reminder, I'll be speaking tonight in Olympia, Washington, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on Wednesday night, and at NYU Law School on Friday. For those interested, details are here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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Afghanistan Iraq The New York Times Washington D.c.