Skip to content
Home » What the Pentagon leak story says about journalism

What the Pentagon leak story says about journalism

Any self-respecting leak needs a name. It can be a play on “Papers” (Pentagon, Panama, Pandora) or on the word “Leaks” itself (Swiss, Lux, Football); simply adding “Files” to a proper noun seems to confer an attention-grabbing gravitas. But the recent leak of US intelligence documents about sensitive global affairs doesn’t have a single moniker. The Washington Post and others called them “THE DISCORD LEAKS,” after the social platform where they surfaced. But this hasn’t universally caught on—perhaps because, as the New York Times tech reporter Mike Isaac noted, the leaks aren’t about Discord. “It’s like calling something ‘the internet leaks,’” he wrote.

The semantic confusion hasn’t ended there. Mainstream commentators seem to agree that the alleged leaker, a twenty-one-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman named Jack Teixeira, is not a “whistleblower.” The leak seemed too scattershot to advance any unified argument about wrongdoing—and that was before an online acquaintance of Teixeira’s told the Post: “I would definitely not call him a whistleblower.” (Tucker Carlson and others  have characterized Teixeira as a whistleblower, even if they haven’t used that word.) There has also been some dispute as to whether the leaker is even a “leaker”—the media critic Dan Froomkin thinks not, on the grounds that “leakers are public-spirited” whereas “thieves just post (or sell) secrets because they can.” At the very least, we have been told, Teixeira has nothing in common with Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Reality Winner, and other whistleblowers/leakers past. Except for the ways in which he does.

Teixeira himself has been treated as a subject of revealing media interest, and not just the source of interesting revelations in the media. Reporters at various major outlets followed a trail of online breadcrumbs hinting at his identity; the Times found his online profiles and published his name even before the FBI showed up to arrest him. This angered some observers—not least Glenn Greenwald, who popped up on Carlson’s show to accuse the Times and the Post of working hand in glove with law enforcement. Writing for The Intercept, Nikita Mazurov argued that if Teixeira “had shared precisely the same classified materials with reporters, regardless of his motivations, he would be tirelessly defended as a source.”

Teixeira was not a direct source for reporters, a fact that is hardly immaterial when it comes to weighing journalists’ obligations toward him. Still, there has been something, if not contradictory, then at least a bit jarring in major news organizations hyping Teixeira’s disclosures as front-page news on the one hand while racing to unmask and define him on the other. 

If nothing else, this dynamic—and the aforementioned semantic fumbling—raises several intriguing notions about the media’s current relationship to sensitive information. In the cultural imaginary, a leak happens when a principled insider breaks a small ring of high-level secrecy to expose wrongdoing to the public, using the press as an intermediary. The truth has rarely been as Hollywoodish as this, but it has arguably never rung more false than in Teixeira’s case. What happened this time was messier, raising questions about the media’s traditional self-conception as both gate-keeper and agenda-setter. In the past, we set the agenda and the internet talked about it. In Teixeira’s case something like the reverse is true. 

This is not to say that journalists did not play a central role in bringing this leak to public attention; senior intelligence officials reportedly learned of it only on the day that the Times reported on it. By this point, however, sensitive information had already been online for months, eventually spilling out across various social-media platforms and channels after initially having been posted to a Discord server whose participants otherwise talked about gaming and sometimes traded racist jokes and memes. From what we know of Teixeira’s motives (a picture that, in my view, remains fuzzier than some thinkpieces would have you believe) he uploaded the documents essentially to show off to fellow denizens of the server, and did not intend for them to go beyond its walls. “In keeping with the dark absurdity of the internet era, the leak does not seem motivated by righteous or even misguided whistleblowing but by an extremely online man, barely old enough to drink, who was trying to impress his teenage friends in a racistly named group chat,” The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel writes. “Less John le Carré, more 4chan.”

Sign up for CJR‘s daily email

In this sense, Teixeira cannot be compared to the likes of Snowden, who actively wanted the biggest reach possible for his disclosures (and let the media vet and curate them first). But the case nonetheless raises some existing, knotty questions about what it means for information to be secret. Teixeira’s Discord server was not public—but it had dozens of active members, and even if it had only had one or two beyond Teixeira, he’d still be in hot water for sharing state secrets. Meanwhile, over a million people have official legal access to some level of secret information, a figure that, while necessarily high for the purposes of coordination between agencies, stretches the term “secret.” And what even constitutes one is murky, as I wrote earlier this year. The US routinely classifies information that is not meaningfully secret at all, or shouldn’t be.

Journalists have often noted that this bloated system is an enemy of press freedom, in that it is terrible for transparency. At the same time, the more bloated the system gets, the more people like Teixeira have access even to documents that are legitimately sensitive, raising the chances of a consequential leak, either to the media or online. Meanwhile, major news organizations are increasingly skilled at exploiting sophisticated tools for analyzing open-source intelligence, which is ever more abundant. Sometimes, they can seem more effective at doing this than officials themselves. In Teixeira’s case, the intelligence community not only didn’t monitor the spread of his leaks online, but quite possibly wasn’t allowed to, at least initially. Reporters, of course, eventually used open-source methods to identify and name Teixeira.

Ultimately, how sensitive information comes to light matters less than the information itself. When asked on The Daily, the Times’s daily news podcast, whether he thought the leak would change the course of history, David E. Sanger, a Times national security reporter, said that he didn’t think it would, and went on to talk about the leaker’s apparent lack of an ideological motive. Teixeira’s leak may not change history. But a similar future leaker could easily—and seemingly randomly—post something enormously consequential. At minimum, it seems likely that something like this will happen again, and the media should be ready for it. 

Teixeira has showed that the power to locate, amplify, and frame information is now shared and diffuse, perhaps more so than ever. Monikers like “Papers,” “Files,” and “Leaks” have long attached to branded, packaged media products. Those will surely continue. But so, too, will leaks that we struggle to name, because they aren’t ours—they’re the internet’s.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a court in Russia sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition activist and contributor to the Post’s opinion section, to twenty-five years in prison on charges, including “treason” and spreading “false information,” stemming from his criticism of the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, also in Russia, Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter jailed last month, was finally permitted to meet with the US ambassador, who described him as being “in good health.” This morning, Gershkovich appeared in court to lodge an appeal against his detention. The court rejected the appeal.
  • In the absence of white smoke indicating a last-minute settlement, the defamation trial between Dominion Voting Systems and Fox News will finally get underway this morning. As I wrote in yesterday’s newsletter, a twenty-four-hour delay in proceedings unleashed a torrent of speculation that a settlement was imminent, but the Times subsequently reported that its sources did not expect one to come together, not least because Fox “would have to issue an apology to Dominion under the terms Dominion would accept.”
  • Recently, Bruce Willingham, the publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, in Oklahoma, left a recording device in a public meeting room because he suspected officials would continue talking after the meeting ended, in violation of state transparency laws. The recorder captured four officials talking about executing Willingham and his son, who also works for the Gazette-News. Oklahoma’s governor called on the officials to resign.
  • Nicole Carroll, the editor in chief of USA Today and president of news at its parent company, Gannett, will step down next month after five years in post. Michael McCarter will succeed her as editor in chief on an interim basis. According to Semafor’s Max Tani, staffers learned of Carroll’s departure via a lengthy internal memo about Gannett’s plans to “rapidly reverse audience declines and set a new trajectory.”
  • And John Fetterman, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, returned to the Senate yesterday following treatment for clinical depression. Politico’s Myah Ward reports that Fetterman’s staff were pleasantly surprised by the public conversation around his absence, which reflected shifting attitudes toward mental health. The shift, Ward writes, has numerous causes, including that “the media now talks about mental health more.”

ICYMI: The Authoritarianism Issue

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!