Margaret MacMillan and Clay Shirky discuss the impact of Wikileaks with the CIC

By: /
June 9, 2011

CIC: Will Wikileaks revelations require revising the historical record? Will historians have to revisit their work?

MacMillan: Historians are always revising the historical record. New material comes out—someone discovers a diary or letters in an attic or new boxes turn up in archives. When the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed it suddenly became possible to see records that had been kept secret. Equally important we ask different questions and bring different sorts of evidence into our discussions of the past. For example, a few decades ago historians were not much concerned with what it was like to be a woman or a child or a peasant. Now we are. And what is historical evidence has expanded beyond official archives and written records to include songs, pictures, or movies. So Wikileaks will not on its own make us revise the past. What it does is give us a huge amount of material now that we might have had to wait decades to see. Normally it takes at least 40 years for diplomatic records to become public even in open societies like the United States or Canada. With Wikileaks we are getting them as events are still unfolding. Historians who work on the near past will have to take the Wikileaks material into account.

Shirky: Wikileaks isn't some special thing, it's just a new source of contemporaneous account. *Of course* this will require revision, but not in any interesting way -- historians always have to revise based on new data, no matter what the source, when that data provides material not otherwise available.

CIC: Going forward, how will access to far greater amounts of historical information change the practice of writing and documenting history?

MacMillan: Some parts of the past have too little material—think of classical history. Now we have too much. Future historians are going to have a terrible time sorting out what is really important in the huge pile of phone transcripts, memos, emails. And it will no longer be possible for them to master the whole record of a particular episode or aspect of our times.

Shirky: There seem to be two models, which could be likened, metaphorically, to the way we account for baseball and cricket. Accounts of baseball games tend to be much more stats driven -- even the most limited, paper coverage of baseball tends to be dripping in stats at the game and league level. Accounts of cricket games, on the other hand, tend to treat the stats as background, and to foreground the telling of a story of the game that integrates the individual events into a sense of the whole.

Neither model is right or wrong, but they are different. As contemporary life generates many more legible traces -- orders of magnitudes more -- historians are going to occupy a wider range across that spectrum.

This isn't either/or. Instead, the extremes of each pattern are going to spread. The most data driven stuff will integrate far more sources, qualitative and quantitative, than today, and the most narrative stuff will rely on an enormously more detailed base of primary documents.

CIC: Does this make the job of the historian easier or more difficult? Or are they even still needed?

MacMillan: Both. More access to material but more difficult because of the sheer volume. And what is already happening—and Wikileaks will only encourage this—is that people in important positions or dealing with sensitive issues are becoming very careful about what they say on phones or put in electronic form. We may be actually losing out when it comes to knowing what actually took place.

Shirky: They are needed in that the data in the pattern is not the pattern, and the events in the story are not the story. The job of synthesizing remains, though it will require historians to be better at finding and managing data than before.

CIC: What do you think of the way that The New York Times and other newspapers handled the information? What does it mean that The Guardian used the first War Logs to suggest that coalition forces had killed "hundred of civilians in unreported incidents," when The New York Times did not even mention this leak?

MacMillan: My impression—but I did not look at lots of newspapers, mainly the Guardian and the NY Times—is that the papers tried hard to be responsible and not to release information that would risk lives. The fact that the Guardian chose to highlight one aspect and the NY Times another with the first leaks does not suggest to me anything more than that there was a lot of material and editorial choices had to be made and that those choices depended on the nature of the papers and where they are located. The Guardian has long been opposed to the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan so it is not surprising that its editors would single out evidence that these have been bad things. Canadian papers naturally concentrated more on stories involving Canada just as the French were more interested in stories about Sarkozy.

Shirky: It's important not to view everything that comes form Wikileaks as being somehow special or different -- the difference between the Times and the Guardian has to do with the news judgment of the editors of those papers, not with their partnering with Wikileaks. From the greenlighting of Judith Miller's use of Curveball as a source, the Times has always been, in relative terms, a pro-war paper, and the Guardian not. That difference has colored all their decisions, from the Times' craven refusal to call torture by its name to their coverage of civilian deaths.

CIC: Was the Times right to see Assange as merely a source, not a partner or collaborator? As an academic - and not a journalist - would you see Assange as just a source? Do different ethical codes apply to journalists and academics?

MacMillan: As for Assange being just another source, he is a source of different magnitude and he is not leaking things that he knows first hand. Rather he is a conduit for a lot of material from another source in this case the US government. The nearest parallel is Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I do find his insistence that the world will suddenly be a better place if there are no more secrets naïve.

Shirky: Of course Wikileaks is not just a source, given that it is not the actual source -- that was, we presume, Manning.

Wikileaks occupies the part of the ecosystem that is in the middle between sources and readers, and given that we have the word 'media' to describe precisely that intermediary function. Anyone insisting Wikileaks isn't a media outlet is trying to make the word mean less than it actually does.

Keller seems to be on a campaign to insist that nothing fundamental is changing in the media landscape. You can see how someone whose organization was a lot more secure, both as a business and as a cultural institution, before the internet would want to make an argument like that, but that kind of self-interested assertion doesn't line up with reality, and the reality is that the Times partnered with another media outlet called Wikileaks.

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