The war logs, thousands of secret documents released to the public, don't reveal much new information about the war in Afghanistan. But the whole episode reveals a great deal about modern journalism, and the complex, ever-changing relationship between the old and new media.
Both forms of journalism need each other, and when they work together, the public benefits by gaining access to more useful information. But there are limits to collaboration. The old and new media still play by different rules, and that culture clash can cause them to disagree on a critical issue: how seriously to consider national-security interests.
There are two main actors in the war-logs drama. One is WikiLeaks, a shadowy, stateless organization that exists mainly in cyberspace. It obtained the documents and posted them on the Internet for anyone in the world to read.
The second actor is the New York Times. A month before that posting, WikiLeaks gave the Times (and publications in Great Britain and Germany) access to the raw material and allowed the paper to sift through it, find the themes and story lines, analyze and evaluate its importance.
Both actors gained something. The Times plugged into a new and cost-free source of enormously valuable information. At a time when economic pressures are compressing news staffs and budgets, it's hard to imagine any mainstream-media outlet devoting the time and money needed to unearth this information on its own.
And even the most ardent defenders of the old media (including us) have to admit that the new media are potent partners in advancing one of journalism's prime goals: holding government, any government, accountable. As media critic Jay Rosen put it, "WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new."
Yes, it is. But the new media is also starting to realize what the old media still has to offer. WikiLeaks could have simply dumped its documents into cyberspace without using the Times or any middleman. It didn't do that because those documents were next to useless without being processed through editors, analysts and filters.
"The episode was … an affirmation of traditional journalism," wrote David Carr in the New York Times. He then quoted media expert Clay Shirky: "WikiLeaks was soaking, drowning in data. What they needed was someone who could tell a story. They needed someone who could bring accuracy and political context to what was being revealed."
The second lesson, however, is about divergence, not convergence. WikiLeaks and the New York Times used each other and worked together, but they operate in different ways, on different value systems, and those differences emerged in a graphic way.
Julian Assange, the founder and editor of WikiLeaks, held a press conference in London and explained that in releasing the information, he paid absolutely no attention to issues of national security. When a reporter asked whether there was any line he would not cross or any limit to what he would release, Assange answered contemptuously.
"States have national-security concerns, we do not have national-security concerns," he retorted. "You often hear … that something may be a threat to U.S. national security. This must be shot down whenever this statement is made. A threat to national security? Is anyone serious?"
Well, yes we are. Deadly serious. And so, fortunately, are the New York Times and other mainstream outlets. Under American law, it is virtually impossible for the government to stop publication of even the most incendiary material. But with those extraordinary rights come extraordinary obligations, and the media has to use its freedom wisely.
The Times did that, withholding information that could threaten the "national security" that Assange holds in such low regard. "We took great care both to put the information in context and to excise anything that would put lives at risk or jeopardize ongoing military missions," wrote Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times. "We erred, if at all, on the side of prudence."
In fact, at the request of the American government, the Times asked Assange to show similar "prudence" in releasing the raw documents. And while Assange claimed to follow a "harm minimization" policy, the Times and other publications found many cases where WikiLeaks jeopardized intelligence operations by revealing the names and locations of Afghan informants.
So here's the lesson of the war logs. The Internet is a new and powerful force for enlightening the public. But there is still a key role in journalism for old-fashioned values, standards and judgment.
Steve Roberts' new book, "From Every End of This Earth" (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.