Would the New York Times publish wikileaks if they weren’t wikileaks?

In China, at least, among the most anticipated of the wikileaks cables was the one that purportedly suggested that a member of the Chinese Politburo set off a crackdown on google after finding that searches for his name produced unflattering results. To me, at least, this seemed implausible (at least as a source-able news story), but I thought I’d at least wait for the actual cable to make a judgment. And today, I got that cable, dated May 18, 2009 (warning – that link may be blocked/shut down at any time). Interesting enough, Wikileaks blacks out the name of the Politburo official who purportedly was offended by the search – but the New York Times, for reasons unclear, could not resist and unmasks him as Li Changchun, China’s Propaganda chief. Neither party, however, identifies the source of this very high-level and damning story. But we do know this: a) there is only one source for this story, and b) it was not Li Changchun. Furthermore, we know that the author of the diplomatic cable wasn’t nearly as confident in the story as the authors of the New York Times piece, and s/he states this lack of confidence in the second to last sentence of the cable:

“While we can neither confirm nor deny the provocative language and views attributed to xxxxxxxx, the claims of government-forced retribution by the major SOE telecom companies are cause for serious concern.”

Now, it’s worth noting that a single source anecdote, backed by doubts from the reporting journalist, would automatically disqualify the Li Changchun story from any major newspaper or magazine in the United States – especially those with fact-checking departments, and especially the New York Times (newspaper of, ahem, record). Because, in effect, knowing what we know, for the single-sourced Li Changchun story to be true (in a fact-checked sense), the reader (or editor) is required to believe that Li, at some point, verbally expressed his displeasure at finding negative google results about himself to another person. That, or somebody saw Li google himself and find negative results. The former strikes me as highly unlikely – personal vanity, even at the highest levels of Chinese power, isn’t any more socially acceptable in China than it is in the US. You really are required to imagine Li saying to somebody: “I was googling myself the other day, and can you believe it – there were negative results!” Or, in the second case, and marginally more plausibly, you are required to imagine something like this “I heard over dinner from Li’s secretary that he went absolutely nuts when his kid came in and showed him the negative results that turn up when his dad’s name is googled.” And not to belabor the point, but I’ll point out again that the author of the cable doubts the story, too.

Should journalists report wikileaks? I certainly think so. But I also think a bit of journalistic skepticism (as opposed to journalistic over-excitement – in which, full disclosure, I’ve also indulged) is in order. State Dept FSOs are capable of being misled (several other leaked cables demonstrate that fact quite clearly), and at a minimum, if the cable expresses skepticism about the source of classified information, and the information itself, then the news organization reporting that classified information should report the skepticism, as well. In this case, the New York Times made no effort to report on the sourcing or the skepticism, suggesting that the Li Changchun anecdote is as solid as something reported for the New York Times itself. Well, it’s not. And that should have been noted.

My friend Jim Fallows (with whom I corresponded on this issue), has also written a post on the topic, and it is very much worth reading.

[UPDATE 12/6: In contrast, the Washington Post reports the Li Changchun anecdote, but unlike the NYT, does so in a way that alerts readers to the fact that the story comes from a single-source:

U.S. officials have not verified the report. “There is a single-source report that the attack was directed by the Chinese government,” said a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We have never been able to corroborate that.”]

3 comments

  1. You lot are so funny. The only thing the wikileaks proves is the American government THINKS it’s the Chinese Politburo pressured Google out of China. It doesn’t necessary provide evidence to say that the Chinese Politburo actually did it.
    But personally, speaking as a Chinese here, I’d buy the story. The old git might be vein and not say anything after googling himself. But his men must be smart enough to spot this and consequently suggest to him, let’s get google out of China.
    Plus, rumor has it, Baidu, google’s competitor, has been kissing the communist party’s arse since the beginning. The government has always been favouring Baidu over Google. They don’t say it. We all know it.
    Google is a great company. Great culture. It’s a shame.

  2. Adam.

    An interesting angle, and one that I think 8-10 years ago might have held true… but in today’s work, where anonymous sources make up the vast number of sources, I am not surprised that the Western media has jumped all over this.

    Google was something of a story a year ago, and there are some that want that name public because it provides a link to an end that they wanted to see in the press.

  3. Please note that the Times story has John Markoff as the second author on the byline. John Markoff is known for being, shall we say, overeager when it comes to hacking stories.

    Of course, this by itself does not disqualify this (or any other) article from serious consideration. People learn from their experiences, people change over fifteen years, etc. It’s just that, after having read the article, the primary sources, and your analysis, I go back to check who wrote it, and I get an “Aha!” moment.

    I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with the celebrity journalists at the New York Times recently … Oh for the days when I was innocent and naive and could read the Times with an uncritical eye!

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