In Leak, An Upstart Joins Forces With Old Media

Wikileaks, the organization that leaked documents related to the Afghan war, coordinated the release with The New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Guardian. Sree Sreenivasan, professor of digital media at Columbia Journalism School, offers his insight.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now to the organization that released those classified reports. Wikileaks is a website that's become a kind of international whistleblower. It posts sensitive information, sometimes a lot of it.

In this case, Wikileaks did something it hasn't done before - it gave classified documents to three mainstream news organizations, including the New York Times.

Sree Sreenivasan teaches journalism at Columbia. He says he understands why a new media outfit would want to share this story with the old media.

Professor SREE SREENIVASAN (Journalism, Columbia University): By giving it to big news organizations and giving them the time to dig through it, as they did several weeks apparently, then the onus on verifying, on follow-through, all of that gets pushed out to places like the New York Times. And by engaging them in this way, they have brought a lot more attention, I think, to this than they would have brought otherwise.

And at the same time, I think you're also seeing that even with all the work that the Times and the others have put into this, it's still hard to kind of pick it apart and kind of understand what all of this means immediately. But imagine without the Times putting in the effort.

MONTAGNE: Yes. In other words, you throw 90,000 pages on the Web. It's almost like dumping it.

Mr. SREENIVASAN: That's right. I mean, it was a dump but this was a dump that was smartly done to engage journalists with far more resources.

MONTAGNE: So, is this a change in the way old and new media might relate to each other?

Mr. SREENIVASAN: Well, I think this is fascinating, because you saw last week with the Andrew Breitbart-Shirley Sherrod story about how independent Web publishers are using the mainstream media. And here you're seeing another example of that in a different case. The Times editor, Bill Keller, executive editor, has said that they got the materials but did not have any other contact with Wikileaks.

And seeing where this is going to go, I think the next big story that they do, they may decide that it's worth working with a news organization or they'll do it on their own, but they have that flexibility.

MONTAGNE: Well, if it's going to end up in the New York Times, why would a person in possession of these classified field reports not just go directly to the New York Times? I mean, we've gotten to the point where it's a comfort level with the Web?

Mr. SREENIVASAN: That's certainly one aspect of it. There are lots of places like Wikileaks or Drudge Report or any of these places that are set up so that people can send them stuff. Eliminate the middleman, just get it out there. A place like Wikileaks becomes a clearinghouse. They think that at least it to be a clearinghouse, a place where people want to listen to things that are not maybe as sourced as more traditional places would like.

MONTAGNE: Is Wikileaks prepared to sort through the sort of information that it gets, because clearly somebody could have an agenda. There could be some, you know, serious national security interests at stake here. Is it able even to sort through, and from what you know, are they even attempting to do that?

Mr. SREENIVASAN: It depends on the story. I read about them making efforts to kind of track down and make sure information is accurate. On the other hand, as more and more stuff shows up at their front door, how do they verify? How do they authenticate? And then what do they do to put things in context?

Because we have seen, in many cases, when things are just excerpted and you get played by people with an agenda, then your own credibility goes down. And we've seen that with mainstream news organizations as well. So, making sure that they make that effort is going to be critical to their future success in just being taken seriously whenever they have a big blockbuster.

MONTAGNE: Sree Sreenivasan is professor of digital media at Columbia University's School of Journalism. Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. SREENIVASAN: Thanks for having me.

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