Cleaning up the White Noise

April 8, 2010 

On Monday, nonprofit WikiLeaks released a classified U.S. military video from a July 12, 2007, incident in which Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh were killed in an Apache attack that left a dozen dead and wounded two children. Reuters had filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the video, but it didn’t surface until sources that WikiLeaks cite as whistleblowers from within the U.S. military provided the footage and supporting Rules of Engagement documents.

Reactions to the footage are unsurprisingly polarized. The commenters at Fox News are mostly military supporters, while the comments on MSNBC are dotted with cries of murder. Right from a first glance, the headlines at various news organizations shade the story, ranging from Fox News' "Video Appears to Show U.S. Forces Firing on Unarmed Suspects in Baghdad" to MSNBC's "Video Shows U.S. firing on people in Iraq," and WikiLeaks' bluntly provocative "Collateral Murder."

This is sadly unsurprising as well, and it's no secret that polarization has drowned out reasonable discourse in favor of blindly screaming in support of your side these days. Fox News has taken a commanding ratings lead, in essence becoming the mainstream media its talking heads so despise, with MSNBC giving one-time leader CNN a run for its money (which buys some pretty fancy/asinine special effects come election time). And with this video release, WikiLeaks has made a splashy entrance into many people's mediaspheres. The unedited video, nearly 40 minutes long, has been viewed more than 600,000 times, and a trimmed version with notes running 17 minutes has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube.

There's no shortage of video analysis, with solid arguments on both sides. It's hard to imagine our soldiers purposely killing innocent people, though tragic events throughout the history of war support this as a real possibility. On the other hand, blind support of our troops is just as faulty. It's also unfair to be the Monday morning quarterback, knowing that they are carrying cameras to argue that the soldiers should have known they weren't a threat or that the photographer's use of the wall as a shield to photograph from in a combat zone would be perceived as shouldering an RPG. It's a complicated situation, to be sure, and I doubt it's that uncommon. The Guardian's Douglass Haddow makes an interesting point about the connection between the attitudes of the soldiers as compared to video game players.

These wishy washy statements should indicate that I still don't really know how to feel about this. What I do know is that obtaining and decrypting the classified video when an established news agency like Reuters could not is, as Vice President Biden might say, a big f-ing deal. WikiLeaks, essentially a blog of stuff "they" don’t want you to see, busted this thing wide open. Phil Bronstein has an interesting column at the Huffington Post in which he declares, "transparency is the victor here," a point I wholeheartedly agree with. If something like this had been leaked 10 years ago, we would have only seen heavily edited snippets on the evening news and descriptions in the newspaper.

What I don’t like is WikiLeaks' blatant and unapologetic editorializing of the situation. A New York Times article, "Iraq Video Brings Notice to a Website," states, "The site is not shy about its intent to shape media coverage, and (WikiLeaks co-founder and editor Julian) Assange said he considered himself both a journalist and an advocate; should he be forced to choose one, he would choose advocate." While that is certainly his prerogative, he would better serve his mission with a more fair approach. By stating that he would choose being an advocate over being a journalist he has effectively done so.

It is commendable to take a hard stance and stand firmly by it, but succumbing to the visceral emotion without accounting for the contextual logic only serves to rile up the people who already agreed with you. I'm reminded of one of the most upsetting pieces of graffiti I've ever seen. It's beautiful in its simplicity, but maddening in its message. I'm sure you've seen it too, when somebody cleverly writes "war" on a stop sign. It's not that I disagree with the sentiment, it's just so pointless. People who disagree with you, not necessarily because they love war, but because they disagree with the political implications of whatever current war(s) is/are being fought, will only dig their heels in deeper. After all, the people who want to stop war are lawless vandals.

There really is no such thing as true objectivity, however, and I'm not saying Assange and the folks at WikiLeaks shouldn’t have opinions on these matters or shouldn't work to create the change they're striving toward. They do so by simply releasing the hard-to-get information they choose to, but throwing around phrases like "indiscriminate slaying" and "collateral murder" undermines that goal. Still, this release is a ground breaking achievement and it will be interesting to see how situations like this will play out in the future.

It doesn't look like we'll have to wait very long, as WikiLeaks claims to have a video showing a "May 2009 attack in western Afghanistan which killed over 100 civilians" in a call for more donations to help bankroll their mission as an "intelligence agency of the people." It appears their pleas have garnered a strong response, according to a tweet saying they have raised more than $150,000 in the three days since the video came out.

No matter how this thing shakes out, the incident is undeniably tragic. Regardless of the outcome, it's fair to say that somebody will feel justice has not been served. My hope is that some of the hard and important questions that this video raised will be addressed in the middle of the storm.

Links:

The New York Times' At War blog has done a good job tracking the fallout: WikiLeaks Defends Release of Video Showing Killing of Journalists in Iraq Reaction on Military Blogs to the WikiLeaks Video

And its Lens blog has a nice tribute to the fallen photographer.

An article at Gawker claims that David Schlesinger, the editor in chief of Reuters, spiked a story back in 2007 that argued the incident could be a war crime.

Interview with a veteran of the unit involved at democracynow.org.

WikiLeaks' Twitter page is an interesting way to track what has happened from their perspective since Monday's release.

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kyau@tricityherald.com
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