(photo: Stephen Cummings)

(update below)

The Wall Street Journal editorial staff has now officially committed to lying through their teeth about how the phone hacking scandal at News of the World is exactly like the New York Times, The Guardian and other newspapers working with WikiLeaks. Yesterday, the editorial staff sought to defend News Corp in an editorial on the business of news and how the phone hacking scandal is now being used to “injure press freedom in general.” The editorial called out The Guardian, a newspaper that has been forcefully covering the fallout that threatens the future of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and suggested it was wrong for The Guardian to scrutinize News Corp when it worked with WikiLeaks.

Now, Bret Stephens, deputy editor of the editorial page for the Wall Street Journal, who writes the “Global View” column on foreign affairs, has published an editorial called “News of the World vs. WikiLeaks.” It opens with this rhetorical question:

How does this year’s phone hacking scandal at the now-defunct British tabloid News of the World—owned, I hardly need add, by News Corp., the Journal’s parent company—compare with last year’s contretemps over the release of classified information by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and his partners at the New York Times, the Guardian and other newspapers?

Stephens immediately answers, “At bottom, they’re largely the same story.” Then, he begins to pathologically lie about how they are exactly the same. The following paragraphs arguing similarity would be laughable if they weren’t so pitiful.

In both cases, secret information, initially obtained by illegal means, was disseminated publicly by news organizations that believed the value of the information superseded the letter of the law, as well as the personal interests of those whom it would most directly affect. In both cases, fundamental questions about the lengths to which a news organization should go in pursuit of a scoop have been raised. In both cases, a dreadful human toll has been exacted: The British parents of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, led to the false hope that their child might be alive because some of her voice mails were deleted after her abduction; Afghan citizens, fearful of Taliban reprisals after being exposed by WikiLeaks as U.S. informants.

First off, that is one awful sentence. I’m not even sure what the hell he just wrote about Afghan citizens. But, I’ll assume he’s trying to write that they were killed. There is currently no evidence that any Afghan informants have been killed. In fact, back on August 11, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell said, “We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the WikiLeaks documents.”

Second, The Guardian didn’t actually break any laws trying to get the information from WikiLeaks. The New York Times didn’t break any laws; in fact, if it did break the law, it did so in conspiracy with the State Department and the FBI because the New York Times told the State Department exactly what WikiLeaks cables they planned to publish.

Third, the people who were adversely affected by the publication of the Afghanistan or Iraq War Logs or the US State Embassy Cables were government officials, people whom the press are supposed to be scrutinizing. On the other hand, those adversely affected by the phone hacking was the family of a thirteen year-old girl.

Stephens goes on to call both the hacking and the coverage of WikiLeaks releases “despicable instances of journalistic malpractice.” If by journalistic malpractice, Stephens means good old-fashioned muckraking investigative journalism, yes, The Guardian and even the New York Times are guilty.

Stephens doesn’t get that what the New York Times and The Guardian did was not illegal. There is no law that was broken. And, what they did is impossible to differentiate from what WikiLeaks did.

Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of releasing material to WikiLeaks, did not hack into anything to get the material. He had access to a government database of classified information. And as Jesselyn Radack,  former ethics adviser to the United States Department of Justice who blew the whistle on the FBI’s ethics violations during its interrogation of John Walker Lindh, has noted Manning should be covered under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act because he disclosed war crimes and evidence of abuse and violation of the law.

Stephens goes on to mock those who think covering WikiLeaks has produced public interest journalism:

The easy answer is that the news revealed by WikiLeaks was in the public interest, whereas what was disclosed by News of the World was merely of interest to the public. By this reckoning, if it’s a great matter of state, and especially if it’s a government secret, it’s fair game. Not so if it’s just so much tittle-tattle about essentially private affairs.

You can see the attraction of this argument—particularly if, like Mr. Assange, you are trying to fight extradition to Sweden on pending rape charges that you consider unworthy of public notice.

You don’t have to be facing a dubious attempt at extradition to Sweden for sex crimes to be attracted to this answer—the idea that state matters and government secrets should be of the utmost interest to journalists while “tittle-tattle” should be low on the priority list of topics to cover.

What Milly Dowler was saying into her phone in the last minutes of her life would never and could never be necessary for people to know in order to make proper decisions in a democratic society. On the other hand, exposing the corruption of the Ben Ali family in Tunisia, uncovering details on children detained at Guantanamo, how US allies are funding international terrorism,  the rush among northern powers for oil in the Arctic, US officials serving as salespeople for Boeing, US diplomats working on behalf of Monsanto to launch a “military-style trade war against any European Union country that opposed genetically-modified crops,” US diplomats spying on people at the UN, etc are all activities the public should have the right to know because they each have real world implications and, in some cases, are downright illicit or illegal.

Stephens continues to explain why he thinks WikiLeaks revelations were not in the public interest:

But you can also see why the distinction between the Public Interest, loftily defined, and what actually happens to interest the public, not-so-loftily defined, is a piece of rhetorical legerdemain that masks a raw assertion of privilege. Was it in the higher public interest to know, as we learned from WikiLeaks, that Zimbabwe’s prime minister and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was privately urging U.S. diplomats to hold firm on sanctions even as he was saying the opposite in public? No. Did the public want to know about it? No. What did this particular WikiLeak achieve? Nothing, except to put Mr. Tsvangirai at material risk of being charged with treason and hanged.

His argument is teeming with elitism and arrogant condescension toward the average citizen in America. Stephens argument essentially is what happened to Tsvangirai has no implication on the lives of Americans, even though people in a supposedly democratically-elected government are involved in this scenario he describes. He snootily claims the average American has no interest in what happens in Zimbabwe and then suggests that, while Tsvangirai might now be charged with treason and hanged, now that he might be brought to justice, this is of no consequence to Americans because it does not involve them. How high-and-mighty of Stephens to decide what the public is capable of understanding and not understanding.

The WSJ is working to craft a smokescreen, and people like Stephens are getting paid to use pretzel logic and compose arguments that might be used by a teenager on a high school debate team.

Stephens’ crude argument that the News of the World phone hacking scandal is just like newspapers working with WikiLeaks is typical for professional journalists in America. And, once again, WikiLeaks is demonstrating how members of the US press like Stephens see themselves as being members of an elite class. People like Stephens think citizens need them to understand and process current events and the political issues of the day.

And, the newspaper that publishes Stephens’ babble, the WSJ: Its staff believes they should be deciding what to cover and what to leak and should cooperate with government when making decisions on coverage and leaks. Their worst fear is an organization like WikiLeaks that levels the playing field and challenges their “gatekeeper” role in society by publishing previously secret information for the public to read and cover on their own blog. They do not want citizen journalists to become as credible as they have historically been because then they might have to confront their allegiance and fealty to power.

The Wall Street Journal seems to think it can now just write WikiLeaks and everyone will get off News Corp’s case about the illegal phone hacking engaged in by News of the World. They think they can write Julian Assange and that is good enough to get the FBI to reconsider investigating News Corp-owned media organization in the US. But, if WikiLeaks is the secret plan News Corp has to take the public’s attention off of possible phone hacking here in the US, it can expect matters to just get worse because WikiLeaks is no excuse to call off an investigation into whether there is more illegal phone hacking to be uncovered, not even for people who think WikiLeaks is an illegitimate organization.

Update

John Laprise of Ad Doha, Qatar, gives a much  more eloquent answer to why this argument is weak sauce.

Unfortunately this easy answer masks fundamental distinctions between the the two cases. News of the World is allegedly directly responsible for the hacking in question while Bradley Manning is allegedly directly responsible in the Wikileaks case. The News of the World reporters were employees of News of the World. Manning and Wikileaks have not been shown to have any such relationship.

An even more critical difference is in the nature of privacy. It is well-established in most western democracies that individuals have a variety of privacy rights. News of the World apparently trampled those rights. It is not the case that states enjoy the same rights. Classification rules and laws in the US apply only to those people who have actually signed agreements to respect under pain of prosecution those rules. Bradley Manning held a security clearance and agreed to such rules. Should it be shown that he did pass files to Wikileaks, he will certainly be liable. The case against Wikileaks is far more uncertain especially as the Government attempts to stretch the Espionage Act of 1917 beyond all recognition. The US Government’s ill-advised use of the Espionage Act in the recent case against Thomas Drake, a former NSA analyst was a debacle and demonstrated that a law conceived during World War I when “wireless” referred to radio signals is difficult if not impossible to apply almost 100 years later.

Contrast this with the News of the World case where numerous laws prohibiting mobile phone hacking and protecting the privacy of individuals are on the books, applicable and simply awaiting evidence. Moreover the purported activities of News of the World to hide their activities by compromising the authorities may amount to a criminal conspiracy. News of the World’s potential civil liability for the actions of its reporters is incalcuable and may have influenced the company’s decision to close.

The author’s simplistic comparison belies the complexity of the issues involved and does the readership a disservice by conflating two very different cases. Simply put, the author is comparing apples and oranges.