How Did the News Media Cover the Release of Wikileaks Documents on Afghanistan?

Click here to listen to Your Call’s Media Roundtable from July 30, 2010.

Last Monday, three major Western newspapers, the New York Times, the Guardian in London, and Der Spiegel in Germany, ran a series of articles about what they found in over 91,000 classified U.S. military Afghan war documents they received from the whistleblowing group WikiLeaks. It was the largest leak in U.S. history. The documents reveal Army activity in Afghanistan from January 2004 to December 2009, including detailed information about coalition forces killing hundreds of civilians and corruption within the U.S.-supported Afghan government. According to the Guardian, they illustrate a “devastating portrait of the failing war.”

How did the coverage differ and how did the rest of the media respond? President Obama said the documents “do not reveal any issues that have not already informed our public debate on Afghanistan,” yet he said he’s concerned that the leak will harm national security. Much of the corporate media ran with that narrative. Watch this Huffington Post compilation of TV anchors and pundits saying the documents reveal “nothing new.”

Stephen Grey, an independent journalist who’s spent the past few years reporting from Afghanistan, said the leak is “absolutely game changing.” In an interview on Democracy Now! earlier this week, he said the leak has completely compromised the SIPRNet, the U.S. military’s secret system, and will probably cost a billion dollars to fix.

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange says this is just the beginning. In an interview with Antiwar Radio, he said WikiLeaks has been deluged with new high-level leaks from people inside the government. “We have a six months’ backlog to go through because we were busy fundraising and reengineering for this period of intense public interest. So it’ll be interesting days ahead,” he said.

Assange said WikiLeaks is also preparing to release a classified Pentagon video of a U.S. airstrike in the Afghan village of Garani last May that left as many as 140 civilians dead, including children and teenagers.

According to several villagers and government officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch after the massacre happened, “large groups of Taliban fighters were seen withdrawing from the area. At around 8:30 p.m., U.S. aircraft began bombing the village of Garani, close to Ganj Abad. Villagers say that it was during these bombings that most of the civilians were killed. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations that between eight and 12 bombs were dropped. U.S. officials have said that a total of 13 bombs were dropped during the entire day, in eight locations.”

“It was like Judgment Day,” Habibullah, a health worker who witnessed the attacks, told Human Rights Watch. “Words cannot describe how terrible it was. Who can bear to see so many killed, from a two-day-old baby to a 70-year-old woman?”

Newsweek reports that the classified documents WikiLeaks is preparing to release about military activity in Iraq could be three times as large as the Afghan occupation documents made public last week. According to one of Newsweek’s sources, the material portrays U.S. forces involvement in a “bloodbath.”

Will this change the media’s approach to war reporting? Even if it does, will it change U.S. policies?

Nick Davies is a special correspondent with The Guardian. He spearheaded the initial meetings with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to discuss the documents. He worked on the Guardian’s package of stories, Afghanistan: The War Logs, and is author of Flat Earth News, a book that exposes the mechanics of media distortion and propaganda.

How do these documents match up with what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan today? The information shows that the U.S. operation is largely covert and classified. Will that gain any traction?

Independent journalist Rick Rowley just returned from a six-week trip to Afghanistan where he was embedded with a U.S. Marine division in Marjah. Rick produces documentaries for Big Noise Films.

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail spent a total of nine months in occupied Iraq as one of only a few independent journalists in the country. Dahr is author of “The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He just returned from a month long trip to the Gulf where he has been reporting on the oil disaster. The facts he found on the ground greatly differ from what many in the corporate press are now reporting. Time Magazine asks if the damage has been exaggerated and the New York Times declared on Tuesday that the oil has magically disappeared.

Your Call is daily call-in show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz.