Glenn Greenwald and Wired.com's Christmas gift to internet trashtalk is finally beginning to make sense! So let's recap.
The smackdown started a few days ago with Greenwald reiterating his demand that Wired.com reveal more of the chat logs in which Pvt. Bradley Manning, alleged whistleblower, confided in Adrian Lamo, who turned him over to the authorities.
While Wired's news-writing is accurate, the problem with writing the story of the year is that how it was written is often the next headline, especially when the relationships between source, subject and reporter are unusually close and opaque. And there are two sides to that story: what was left unpublished from the chat logs, and how did Wired get the scoop in the first place?
Melding these two issues led Greenwald to lard salient questions about the logs with conspiracy theories about how Wired sourced its reporting. His aggressive style, directed at Wired Senior Editor Kevin Poulsen and his longtime association with Lamo, earned a defensive and contemptuous response from Poulsen and Wired.com chief Evan Hansen. With the mutual trashtalk, however, focus blurred away from the more interesting question of what the logs reveal about Manning and Lamo's chats. These details loom ever larger in the public imagination, not least because they could help American prosecutors get international man of demystery Julian Assange charged over Manning's exfiltration of sordid (and occasionally very witty) displomatic cables.
It comes down to this: is there anything Wired can say about the logs that helps others verify Lamo's increasingly erratic recollections of them, without compromising its journalistic duty to protect sources and subjects? Though Greenwald's aggressive style alienated many, few today seem entirely happy with Wired's given answer, which was "No."
But why is this? One reason is because Adrian Lamo keeps getting fresh press attention by describing what's in the chat logs, but in a way that contradicts established facts or seems otherwise inconsistent or shifty. Wired may be in a position to at least fact-check him without further compromising anyone's privacy, but hasn't.
Another reason is because the story's enormous importance makes every detail seem equally important, even if it isn't. We become fixated on Poulsen's personal associations because its easy to imagine moral hazard spreading like kudzu in the shadow cast by the journalist's shield.
Other questions stand out: is anyone being protected who is not a public figure? Did Wired.com receive legal advice on running the logs? It's possible that the options available to it are limited by matters that it can't discuss in public. (A good example of this would be our own run-in with a company that sued us over a blog post: we remained silent as the court case dragged on because that helped ensure we could go public in full later on.)
If it's able to, Wired has a great opportunity for some radical transparency. That doesn't have to be running the chat logs: it could be a straightforward discussion of why it would be impossible or inappropriate to do so. In the meantime, lovers of DRAMATIC HUMAN can still enjoy all the smacktalk at Wired, Salon, BB, Facebook, Reddit and elsewhere: a sure antidote to the winter gloom.
So, the normal procedure here would be for me to polish this off with some clever analysis, then slam dunk in a zinger that fills everyone involved with epic pathos.
• Perhaps Lamo isn't lying exactly! Instead, he could be studiously trying to limit what he discusses to the inventory of facts currently in the wild, a misguided sense of propriety doing battle with a desire to get what's his by throwing new tidbits at journalists. The result, however, is that his story morphs over time as new info emerges. Mr. Lamo, unaware of why this makes him look bad, is therefore unaware of why it makes reporters who rely on him look bad.
• The AP-style story format now prevalent at Wired.com makes it less bloggy than readers think it is. This establishes a distance between readers and reporters and restores a traditional tone of objectivity to its newswriting. As it is, Wired's commenters rarely emerge from a state of inchoate, slavering rage, so there's no incentive for its writers to enter the peanut gallery. And the blog river itself is polished to such a high standard that casual, chatty posts don't really belong. Without a local venue where writers and readers can engage readers in non-confrontational discussion, it all ends up as bitching on Twitter.
• Even if Lamo is as mendacious as he appears to be, Poulsen may have a responsibility to protect him as a source, even if Lamo abuses that by going on television to discuss that which Poulsen offered discretion on. A promise is a promise, even if you shouldn't have made it, and especially when legal uncertainty coincides with public opprobrium. I can't help but think there is some kind of journalistic paradox going on over there with no real solution. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but you know what? Transparency is harder than it looks when the well-being of innocent people depends upon keeping secrets. You could drown in the polite ironies of journalism.
• Boing Boing also received a version of the Manning-Lamo logs, and we've run what we've got with some redactions. (We also received chat logs not involving Manning, which we didn't run ourselves: they're up here) The Washington Post also received yet another version of these mysteriously never-quite-identical logs. But no-one cares about that, because discussing journalism with the Washington Post would be like discussing metaphysics with a melting knob of butter.