March 8, 2011 — David Sanger said he would “hardly argue that WikiLeaks was the cause of the uprisings” in the Middle East, “but it may have been one of the triggering events.” At a Shorenstein Center event entitled “From WikiLeaks to Cairo: Six Months That Changed International Reporting,” Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, defended the Times‘s decision to publish the WikiLeaks cables.
The Times initially received the cables from the Guardian, who with the German paper Der Spiegel, decided to publish “as a team,” Sanger explained. All three papers reviewed the information and “decided what was newsworthy,” he said. They found that some of the content from Julian Assange had been edited, so the editorial staff “had to verify everything we got from him,” Sanger said. They viewed Assange “not as a publishing partner, but as a source,” and did not include him in the editorial process.
Sanger outlined four charges that have been leveled at The New York Times for publishing the WikiLeaks: that “we did harm for no reason”; that “we put lives at risk by identifying people”; that “we sullied ourselves by dealing with Julian Assange”; and that “we had no right to make these decisions.” In response, Sanger pointed to senior U.S. diplomats who have suggested that the people involved with the Tunisian uprising were “sparked into their rebellion in part by reading that American diplomats knew and understood the depth of the corruption in their own country.” In this way, Sanger argued, “WikiLeaks may have contributed to this democratic movement.”
Reflecting on the uprisings in the Middle East over the past few months, Sanger said he has found that the news coverage of those events “has demonstrated, more dramatically than ever, the damage that has been done in American journalism by the fact that so few news organizations have invested in foreign news.” Ten years after 9/11, there is “less commitment to coverage” than before. “It has been difficult to parachute reporters into these places and have them arrive in any significant sourced way,” he explained. “Americans have been somewhat at a disadvantage,” Sanger concluded, because “they have not had the kind of broad-based reporting” that was common 20 years ago.
This article was written by Janell Sims, Shorenstein Center. Photos were taken by Doug Gavel, Harvard Kennedy School.