Better to drip than to leak

Slate’s Jack Shafer offers some
unsolicited tips for how WikiLeaks could make the most out of its
next big scoop – and explains why the current leak has fallen flat.

Shafer writes:

“Yet for all its volume and detail, the WikiLeaks collection hasn’t wowed veteran military correspondent Tom Ricks, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan, a Mother Jones writer 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.”

Shafer explains Assange’s strategy to give three publications an advance exclusive on the documents before posting the majority to his site.

“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.”

He points out that comparisons to the Pentagon papers aren’t quite fair, as they revealed the U.S. was hiding secrets. It’s an age-old reporter’s trick to bluff about what information you have in hopes the government will reveal more, but now the U.S. military essentially knows all the cards the media is holding.

Shafer suggests that “For his next act, may I suggest that Assange bestow a huge data dump upon one media outlet, such as Mother Jones, the Atlantic, Frontline, Slate, or 60 Minutes, and allow them to extract the highest journalistic value over time? I’d be free to discuss my proposals with Assange over a small glass of water anytime.”