Anyone familiar with the stories of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, the organization’s founder and Pfc. Bradley Manning, the alleged whistleblower to WikiLeaks, would be forgiven for wondering whether PBS Frontline’s documentary “WikiSecrets” presents anything new or not. The documentary attempts to make a sensational connection between Manning and Assange and suggest that Assange might know Manning is the source of the information.
PBS FRONTLINE documentaries are typically straightforward. Thus, the opening montage provides a good idea of what the main points of the documentary will be: it’s hard to tell if Manning approached Assange or whether Assange approached Manning, WikiLeaks had feared one of its “sources” would be exposed, the chat logs suggest Manning knows Assange (but Assange denies that) and WikiLeaks is an anti-secrecy organization that doesn’t believe in secrets, which is why over half a million documents were leaked.
In the first act, FRONTLINE attempts to psychoanalyze Manning and make a determination on his mental health. Sordid details are presented leading one to understand that Manning found himself to be smarter than most of the other soldiers in the military. He was gay and had no respect for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He was using Facebook in a way that put him at risk. He was incapable of keeping a steady job. He was a vocal person and had little respect for his commanding officers. And, an army supervisor did not find him to be fit to go to Iraq.
Adrian Lamo enters the story. The personal dilemma he experienced when deciding whether to turn Manning into the authorities is presented in terms of the fact that he is a hacker, who typically would not be an informant for the government. He consulted Tim Webster, Army Counterintelligence 2002-07, and recognized the value of classified information.
“There was no correct option…only the least incorrect one,” Lamo says. Ultimately, the viewers are to believe he wanted to do the right thing.
Following Manning’s arrest the story moves into a next act, which focuses on Assange, how he worked to build a coalition to release the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and then subsequently the US State Embassy cables.
The documentary hammers away at the idea that Julian Assange had an utter disregard for collaborators and informants—innocent people—and thought if the release of logs endangered them they should die. News organizations are presented as players who fought to convince Assange that his “purist ideology that all information should be accessible to everybody” could cost lives.
Assange rebuts this presented criticism but the rebuttal is nothing more than a simplistic denial. On its face, there is no explanation of why this “rhetorical trick” is wrong. (And that’s because the footage, which features him explaining himself did not make the final cut.)
In the next act, Assange and WikiLeaks are scrutinized for releasing the cables and making it difficult for US diplomacy. Former State Department spokesperson, who was forced out of his position as spokesperson when he spoke out about Manning’s treatment at Quantico, says, “Mr. Assange has disclosed this material without regard to the risk that it does generate to real people,” and, “The unauthorized release of 251,000 cables that covers every relationship the United States has with countries around the world has done damage to the national interests of the United States.”
John D. Negroponte, former Ambassador to the United Nations and Deputy Secretary of State for the Bush Administration who helped push America into a war in Iraq, explains the disclosure of cables has been a “pretty serious irritant.” He stops just short of equating the damage the cables has done to a nuclear bomb saying, “It’s serious.”
In the final act, FRONTLINE gives viewers the first glimpse into some of the deeper elements of the story of WikiLeaks, Manning and Assange. Viewers see supporters standing in solidarity with Manning at Quantico. Viewers are informed that the cables released so far have “exposed widespread corruption” in Tunisia and “helped fuel a revolution and, arguably, had a domino effect.”
Now consider that detail: FRONTLINE, at the very least, implicitly credits WikiLeaks with much of what has happened in the Arab Spring, which means much of President Barack Obama’s recent Middle East speech given at the State Department would have been different if WikiLeaks had not been releasing cables.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, former member of WikiLeaks, mentions how, at the core of debate on WikiLeaks, there is this tension between transparency and secrecy. What needs to be figured out is what should be secret and what shouldn’t be kept secret.
After noting Lamo now lives in an undisclosed location and fears for his life, the documentary closes with this line, “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life. It’s important that it gets out. I feel for some bizarre reason it might actually change something.”
Beyond the discussion of mental health, this may be the first and only time that the audience gets a sense that Manning may have chosen to leak classified information not because he is a troubled young kid but because he had a moral compulsion to release such information.
FRONTLINE Glosses Over Possibility Manning Allegedly Leaked Because of Moral Values
Had FRONTLINE wanted, it could have found a way to include this nugget on Manning, which comes from Micah Sifry’s book WikiLeaks & the Age of Transparency on page 33-34:
Why did Manning allegedly do it? According to his dialogue with Lamo, he had been instructed to watch fifteen detainees held by the Iraqi federal police for printing “anti-Iraqi literature.” Manning says he found out “they had printed a scholarly critique” against Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, “a benign political critique titled, ‘Where did the money go?’… following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet.” But, when Manning “*ran* with this information to a senior officer to explain, “he didn’t want to hear any of it…he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs [federal police] in finding *MORE* detainees.
After that, he said, “I saw things differently. I had always questioned the [way] things worked, and investigated to find the truth… but that was the point where I was a *part* of something… i was actively involved in something that i was completely against…” Manning, it appears, knew he might be on a quixotic mission, but despite his military oath, he felt an allegiance to something higher. “Its important that it gets out… I feel, for some bizarre reason it might actually change something,” he wrote Lamo. “God knows what happens now….
This anecdote, however, is conveniently omitted. One can speculate that FRONTLINE is just like any other media organization, deferential to state power. The faults that can be found in this documentary are the faults that can be found in the traditional media’s coverage for the past months. Not only is traditional media appalled by WikiLeaks and afraid this organization is doing great damage to the journalism profession but traditional media adheres to the official line coming from government so closely that its coverage of WikiLeaks inevitably distorts facts and misrepresents key aspects of the organization’s operations, which are adversarial to state power.
A more appropriate critique is that Frontline suffers from a belief in the tradition of objectivity. Thus, the organization fashions a “fair” and “objective” documentary that balances out two sides. Those who have worked for the press, the military or the government detail their views on WikiLeaks. In the case of Executive Editor of the New York Times Bill Keller, and The Guardian’s David Leigh, they actually worked with Assange and WikiLeaks.
The other side is Assange, Bradley Manning’s friend, Jordan Davis, David House, the only person other than Bradley Manning’s immediate family that was allowed to visit Manning at Quantico, and Daniel Ellsberg. (Perhaps, Bradley Manning’s father, Brian Manning, who gives viewers some reason to empathize with Manning.)
Quest for “Balance” is the Documentary’s Chief Weakness
FRONTLINE lays out its “Journalistic Styles and Practices” stating, “publication of truthful, accurate information is the prime mission of our nonfiction national programs.” The guidelines make clear, “Truth is an elusive combination of fact and opinion, of reason and experience. We ask for the viewer’s trust. In turn, we promise that the subject matter and the people in the program will be treated fairly.”
Producers are to: approach stories with an open and skeptical mind and a determination, through extensive research, to acquaint themselves with a wide range of viewpoints; keep personal bias and opinion from influencing their pursuit of a story; examine contrary information; exercise care in checking the accuracy and credibility of all information they receive, especially as it may relate to accusations of wrongdoing; give individuals or entities who are the subject of attack the opportunity to respond to those attacks; represent fairly the words and actions of the people portrayed; inform individuals who are the subject of an investigative interview of the general areas of questioning in advance and, if important for accuracy, will give those individuals an opportunity to check their records; try to present the significant facts a viewer would need to understand what he or she is seeing, including appropriate information to frame the program; and be prepared to assist in correcting errors.
Such guidelines for objectivity invariably mean programs FRONTLINE produces may be far more conventional than say a documentary produced by a director like Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock or Alex Gibney (who is producing a WikiLeaks documentary). They may not seek to provide deeper insights into issues because the fairness and objectivity of the documentaries they produce could be called into question.
Michael Rabiger, who founded the Documentary Center at Columbia College Chicago, writes in the Directing the Documentary textbook he authored the following on objectivity, fairness and clarification:
Objectivity: People frequently assume documentaries are objective because factual television likes to balance out opposing points of view. This is supposed to ensure a fair, unbiased view of the events and personalities in question. Such balance is a tactic inherited from journalism, which sometimes must preserve the identity of sources that gave information on condition of anonymity. Political balance lowers the dangers to, and responsibilities of, the newspaper. Papers fear accusations of political bias or of being proved wrong, because this brings discredit and lawsuits. So part of a journalist’s professionalism has always been to keep things looking objective. A newspaper will further this appearance by prescribing a uniform and faceless “house” writing style, and by camouflaging staff attitudes as the opinion or the conflicts of others.
In the 1930s this fixation with equipoise led reputable British newspapers to depict the trouble brewing in Germany as a petty squabble between Communism and Blackshirts whipped up by Red troublemakers. We see in hindsight that no responsible commentator could sit on the fence and report in this hands-off way. It was neither fair nor responsible when the Nazis had already begun acting on their genocidal intentions.
Reporters and documentary makers, then and now, must interpret events. This means that for each specific issue your film must imply where the cause of justice and humanity probably lies. To guide us there, you will often have to lead us through a maze of contradictory evidence and let us make our own determinations—just as you made yours. Interestingly, this is how a court presents evidence to the ultimate authority in a democracy—a jury.
Fairness:>In a world of ambiguities the documentarian’s responsibility is to be fair. If, for example, you are telling the story of a malpractice accusation against a surgeon, it would be prudent not only to cover the allegations from both sides but to cross check everything that can be independently verified. In this you follow the same practices as the good journalist and the successful detective. Because matters are seldom as they first seem, the accused is not always guilty, and the accuser is not always innocent. Being fair to countervailing points of view also guards your own interests: your film will have its enemies no matter whose part you take, and you will probably have to defend them, possibly in court. If your enemies can demonstrate a single error of detail they will try to use it to damn the whole work. This is how opponents tried to shoot down Michael Moore’s first film, Roger and Me (1989).
Clarification, not simplification: What interests the documentarian is seldom clear-cut, but there is an ever-present temptation to render it so. Nettie Wild’s A Rustling of Leaves (1990) is a courageous and sympathetic account of the populist guerrilla movement in the Philippines, but the partisan nature of her beliefs makes one feel guiltily skeptical throughout. She makes heroes of the left-wing peasants in their struggle against right-wing thugs, and though her sympathy is clearly justified, we know that armed resistance cannot long remain honorable. Soon both sides commit atrocities and the waters become too muddy for the story to remain one of moral rectitude. To be fair means not only relaying the protagonists’ declared principles but also exposing the ugly and paradoxical aspects of liberation through violence. Wild does this, for instance, by showing the trial and execution by guerrillas of a youthful informant. But one doubts if there is much of a trial when the camera is not around.
A film may be accurate and truthful, but it may fail unless it is perceived as such. Handling your audience well means anticipating the film’s impact on a first-time viewer every step of the way and knowing when justifiable skepticism requires something more built into the film’s argument. The more intricate the issues, the more difficult it will be to strike a balance between clarity and simplicity on the one hand and fidelity to the ambiguities of actual human life on the other.
An Unusual Opportunity to Check the “Fairness” of the Producers
Because WikiLeaks posted the full interview correspondent Martin Smith did with Assange, it is possible to draw conclusions on the nature of objectivity and fairness imposed upon this project.
What Assange says in the final cut of the documentary is the following: we do not know whether Mr. Manning is our source or not; journalists can be identified by their camera bags in the “Collateral Murder” video; WikiLeaks could have better structured various deals and attached economic incentives; source identities are not collected, WikiLeaks is dedicated to protecting sources; WikiLeaks does not know if Manning is the source or not; chats with sources are always anonymous; “Collateral Murder”-type videos can potentially stop wars; WikiLeaks reached out to Lamo because of the difficult position he put them in by turning in Manning, never heard of Bradley Manning or Bradass87; did not receive cables Manning is discussing in logs, WikiLeaks discussed whether it was good to release logs and cables since a young man could potentially be harmed; insisted on working with New York Times so First Amendment protections could provide operation cover; WikiLeaks has harm minimization process to protect lives from being endangered; diplomats deserve to face consequences for engaging in embarrassing behavior; history is on WikiLeaks’ side and when you challenge powerful organizations you will be attacked and WikiLeaks continues to step up publishing speed.
What doesn’t make the final cut is talk about the US military and the national security establishment—what Assange calls a “patronage system”—and how Assange contends it was inevitable that WikiLeaks would face counterattacks; the various traditional media versus new media issues that are raised by WikiLeaks; the importance of not letting the New York Times characterize WikiLeaks as a “source” and not a collaborative partner; the threat to national security journalism from the US national security establishment that this period in history has revealed; exactly why Assange suggested people needed to be named in the Afghan War Logs and how WikiLeaks is one of the most accountable organizations in the world.
Somewhere in that material, a more sympathetic presentation of WikiLeaks could have been pieced together. But, Smith had a concern: in the post-9/11 world, shouldn’t we be worried that someone like Manning would just choose to leak classified information? (You can hear him note this in the full interview video WikiLeaks posted.) That concern appears to have trumped giving WikiLeaks more sympathy.
An Array of People Missing from the Film
Go down the list of people in the documentary. Why wasn’t Glenn Greenwald featured? Why wasn’t Amy Goodman invited to appear? Why wasn’t Micah Sifry included?
Why doesn’t Carne Ross appear to talk about WikiLeaks’ impact on diplomacy?
Why wasn’t Rep. Dennis Kucinich or Rep. John Conyers asked to speak? Conyers held a hearing on Capitol Hill in December of last year. Kucinich has been fighting to get a meeting with Manning.
Why doesn’t Daniel Ellsberg appear in more of the documentary?
Why was the one person who has been blogging WikiLeaks for nearly two hundred days now, Greg Mitchell, not interviewed?
Most appearing in the documentary have a history of animosity toward WikiLeaks. There is one person who appears in the documentary as an unapologetic supporter of WikiLeaks. And, who is that person? Julian Assange.
David House’s Reaction to the Documentary
On Twitter, House tweeted the following messages: “This year I’ve been calm despite being stalked, surveilled, bribed, detained, & having my computer seized, car towed, and friends punished…. The first substantive anger I felt throughout these months arose tonight after watching the stridently propagandized @ frontlinepbs special….Indignation is the only orienting sense after gawking through the twisted pro-Washington hallucination called WikiSecrets.” And, also, he tweeted, “The obvious government bias in @frontlinepbs‘s “WikiSecrets” documentary mirrors a disturbing trend among US media outlets,” and, “Students in Boston are subject to documented harassment by gov officials and @frontlinepbs focuses on unsubstantiated threats to Lamo.”
Martin Smith Just Doesn’t Get It
Watch the full interview posted and one can hear Smith during a break in the interview say to Assange that he is sorry he has to bring all these criticisms of WikiLeaks but he feels it is his “responsibility” to give Assange a chance to respond to the criticism. Assange disagrees and asks why critics should get to set the frame.
The answer is critics get to set the frame because PBS FRONTLINE is committed to producing objective and fair documentaries.
It’s much easier to get Assange to address criticisms. It’s far harder to put power on the defensive and force them to address some of Assange’s concerns with the national security establishment in the United States, which is now trying to prosecute him and those linked to WikiLeaks.
Smith also says, “I’m not trying to get you in trouble on that. I just have to ask you these questions cause they’re out there. Anybody who looks at the chat [logs] says what the hell is this? And I understand you are in a position where you can say only so much.”
This remark comes after a line of questions aimed at unearthing a connection between Assange and Manning. Someone interviewing a person only talks like this if he or she feels he has to justify what he or she was asking in the interview to regain trust.
It’s quite clear that Smith came to the interview with the intention of getting Assange to incriminate himself on camera so FRONTLINE could present a sensational “conspiracy” for viewers.
Those who watched the documentary can appreciate the visual representation of a timeline of events that occurred between Manning’s arrest and now. The documentary, like most FRONTLINE documentaries, is well-produced and, nonetheless, informative. However, it presents itself as a production that has sensational new information to impart to viewers, which it does not. It also seeks to help viewers understand the nature of the WikiLeaks organization and it fails.
That’s because it never intended to help viewers have a better understanding. As far as one can tell, nobody is supposed to walk away willing to trust WikiLeaks or support the stated mission and objectives of the organization.