NYT Drops ClimateGate-era Ethics Qualms, Publishes Scores of WikiLeaks Docs

November 29th, 2010 2:23 PM

The New York Times has taken an admirable stand on the potentially-criminal release of diplomatic cables by the online "whistleblowers" at WikiLeaks. Said one Times reporter: "The documents appear to have been acquired illegally and contain all manner of private information and statements that were never intended for the public eye, so they won't be posted here."

Oh, wait. That wasn't in reference to the WikiLeaks documents. That was the Times's former environmental blogger Andy Revkin discussing the so-called ClimateGate emails. The Times has, in fact, posted a number of American diplomatic documents obtained illegally by WikiLeaks, and containing massive amounts of sensitive diplomatic communications.

And so we get another glimpse of the amazing depths of the Gray Lady's hypocrisy.

The Times wrote in its "Note to Readers" on Monday:

Of course, most of these documents will be made public regardless of what The Times decides. WikiLeaks has shared the entire archive of secret cables with at least four European publications, has promised country-specific documents to many other news outlets, and has said it plans to ultimately post its trove online. For The Times to ignore this material would be to deny its own readers the careful reporting and thoughtful analysis they expect when this kind of information becomes public.

But the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money… As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.

Obviously the two cases - ClimateGate and WikiLeaks - are not identical. They involve different issues and players. But both involve high stakes and policies that are controversial and have tremendous implications for our way of life.

But in terms of the Times's decision to publish documents obtained through the respective leaks, the two cases are perhaps as close to a perfect comparison as we can hope for. In both cases, information became public that was obtained in potentially illegal ways, and in both cases leaked information was sensitive, candid, and meant to be seen only by the people with whom it was originally shared.

State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, a legal hero of the left, made sure to note in a letter to WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange that "publication of the documents would be illegal," according to the Associated Press:

In the letter, Koh said the publication of some 250,000 secret diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, which is expected on Sunday, will "place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals," "place at risk on-going military operations," and "place at risk on-going cooperation between countries."

"They were provided in violation of U.S. law and without regard for the grave consequences of this action," he said. Koh said WikiLeaks should not publish the documents, return them to the U.S. government and destroy any copies it may have in its possession or in computer databases.

But in its defense of the decision to publish, the Times quite clearly states that Americans' ability to have insight into their government's "biggest decisions" trumps any ethical qualms raised by the illegal methods WikiLeaks used to gather the information.

E-mails between some of the world's top scientists - the ones writing research upon which not just American but global climate policy is based - were off limits, by the Times's standards, because "the documents appear to have been acquired illegally."

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks would have filtered into the public space eventually, the Times noted, so failing to publish them in the Paper of Record was really just delaying the inevitable. Of course the ClimateGate emails eventually became public record, despite a near-blackout from the mainstream press. And again, that inevitability never seemed to factor into the paper's editorial decisions on the scandal.

In fact, the ClimateGate emails seem to be the only high-profile leak to which Revkin's ethical stand applied. It certainly did not apply when the Times blared Valerie Plame's name all over its editorial page. Are the paper's commentators not subject to the same ethical standards as its "straight news" reporters?

It doesn't take a magnifying glass to see the epic double standard at work. The Times clearly has an ideological affinity with WikiLeaks that it does not have with climate skeptics or Iraq war advocates. That's hardly news, of course, but then the paper is still claiming to be "objective," so it remains necessary to point these things out.

In defending the Times's decision to publish WikiLeaked cables on the paper's website, national security reporter Scott Shane told the Australian Broadcasting Company's Eleanor Hall that the paper's staff "see ourselves as the eyes and the ears of the people." Unfortunately, that makes everyone right of center deaf and blind.