A Renegade Site, Now Working With the News Media

By NOAM COHEN
New York Times/Media & Advertising

THE four stages of a political movement, as Gandhi told it, were: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

For the whistle-blower Web site WikiLeaks, the release last week of secret field reports on the war in Afghanistan that it obtained from American military sources certainly looked like a victory. Not only did The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel devote hundreds of hours of reporters’ and editors’ time to analyzing and confirming the information in the documents, the three agreed to coordinate publication for last Monday, ensuring there would be blanket news media coverage on at least two continents.

This success followed long periods of obscurity, mocking and, at times, hostility toward WikiLeaks and its hard-to-miss leader, Julian Assange, since the site began in late 2006.

“In the beginning, everyone was skeptical of whether it would work out,” said Daniel Schmitt, a WikiLeaks spokesman based in Germany.

Traditional news media may have finally taken WikiLeaks seriously, but the episode also reflected a change within the organization itself. By handing over the documents to professionals, with no strings attached, and before the site itself could offer its own interpretation, WikiLeaks was retreating to the job of information procurer rather than information explainer.

That’s a shift in strategy since the last time WikiLeaks had an important leak — the release in April of a video of United States soldiers in an Apache helicopter killing civilians in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists. Then, WikiLeaks itself tried to supply its own context and analysis.

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