WikiLeaks in Context

Enough time has now elapsed to evaluate whether there has been public fallout from the Wikileaks revelations regarding the war in Afghanistan.  The American public has reacted with mixed signals to the WikiLeaks controversy, which demonstrated that the intelligence guiding the Obama administration’s policies in Afghanistan was far more pessimistic about prospects for victory than officials publicly acknowledged.  The more than 90,000 internal government documents leaked to the Swedish WikiLeaks organization (and released by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange) have been the subject of significant media attention in recent weeks. More than one-third of Americans reported from late July to early August following the conflict in Afghanistan very closely, a growth of more than ten percent from the month before.    Thirty seven percent of Americans report following the WikiLeaks issue closely, with another 36 percent following it at least “a little.”  In total, reporting on Afghanistan comprised 19 percent of all news coverage in the U.S. in the period mentioned above.


Those who pay the closest attention to the WikiLeaks story are reportedly the most critical of the leaks, suggesting that these news consumers are heavily influenced by the Obama administration’s claims (often disseminated uncritically in the mass media) that the leaks threaten the public interest and U.S. national security.  This view has been echoed in conservative media rhetoric.  Rush Limbaugh attacked the documents for unfairly maligning the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, while Sean Hannity wondered on his Fox News program whether the leaks constituted “treason.” 


In the left-liberal press, the editors of the New York Times ran a July 26th editorial that made use of the incident in order to complain about the alleged treachery of Pakistan, which was implicated in the documents in allying itself with the Taliban.  The editorial conveniently avoided any discussion of the implications of the documents for U.S. leaders, who have been attacked by antiwar critics for manipulating the public regarding the “success” of the Afghan campaign.  The editors of the Washington Post similarly exonerated U.S. officialdom, remarking that the release of the documents “hardly merits the hype of the [WikiLeaks] website.  The archive is not comparable to the Pentagon Papers or the secret files of the East German Stasi secret police, as Julian Assange variously claimed on Sunday and Monday. Nor does it provide evidence for war crimes prosecutions — though in making that assertion, WikiLeaks’ founder revealed his organization’s antiwar agenda.”


One possible reason for why the WikiLeaks documents haven’t made a bigger splash with the general public is the mass media’s covering for the Obama administration, as discussed above.  Another potential reason is that the documents offered little new information for the public -  a majority of which already concluded between late 2009 and early 2010 that the war was no longer “worth it” and that a drawdown in troops is needed.  Currently, just 42 percent of Americans say the leaked documents “serve the public interest,” compared to 47 percent who feel that they “harm the public interest.”  The broader war in Afghanistan, however, is seen in quite a negative light by the majority of Americans.  According to USA Today polling, just 36 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the war as of early August 2010.  As of July, 54 percent support establishing a timetable for withdrawal.  Opposition to the war is likely to increase even more, in light of the record highs seen in U.S. casualties since the Obama escalation in late 2009 and early 2010, and following the increased destruction brought upon the countryside by the United States and the Taliban.  Whether the war becomes so unpopular that it threatens the re-election of the Obama administration, is a question that is difficult to answer.




Anthony DiMaggio is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com), a daily online magazine devoted to the study of media, public opinion, and current events.   He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College, and is the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He can be reached at: [email protected]

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