Op-Ed

It's never easy to rally public opinion, even with mix of old, new media

You may not have noticed, but print journalism was triumphant during the last week of July.

I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

The sentence doesn’t jibe with the conventional wisdom that newspapers today are as out of fashion as the Lucky Strikes in Don Draper’s shirt pocket on “Mad Men.” And I’m certainly wise to the conventional wisdom. I recently saw a movie called “State of Play,” and it was sobering to see that Russell Crowe couldn’t function as a crusading print reporter without the help of a doe-eyed blogger young enough to be his daughter.

That said, newspapers — also known as “the legacy media” and “the dead trees” — definitely proved their worth and mettle last week. I’m referring to the 92,000 leaked U.S. military battlefield records that detailed the miseries we’ve encountered in Afghanistan. Somebody on the inside sent those documents to WikiLeaks, the website that thrives on exposing secrets worldwide, but what’s most noteworthy is what WikiLeaks decided to do with the documents.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange decided to share most of his material — the stuff that, in his estimation, would not put lives in danger — with three key Western newspapers: The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. All three duly produced sizable news packages within the past week. Assange wanted the papers to translate the military jargon for the lay reader. They did. He wanted the papers to vet, analyze and contextualize the material. They did.

In other words, WikiLeaks — which is supposedly in the vanguard of the new media — clearly sought to piggyback on the legitimacy and credibility of the old media. With good reason.

Media critic and academician Jay Rosen contended the other day that WikiLeaks is “the world’s first stateless news organization.” That doesn’t sound quite right. In the new information ecosystem, WikiLeaks is actually more like a broker. It needs help reaching the retail news customer.

So it’s glib and premature to declare that the Internet is supplanting newspapers. It’s probably more accurate to suggest that old and new media are jointly rewriting the rules of engagement on the fly. There are many fruitful ways to partner; for instance, The Washington Post’s July series on the burgeoning antiterrorism bureaucracy paired a Pulitzer Prize-winning print reporter with a data junkie who writes a national security blog (shades of the “State of Play” movie).

The key flaw in the WikiLeaks deal is that WikiLeaks set the terms. Assange gave the three newspapers a deadline, a mere month to vet the shared material. When the month was up, he was posting the stuff. In his dealings with the papers, he refused to identify the leaker or to characterize the leaker’s motivation.

But regardless of whether the working arrangement on this Afghanistan story heralds a power shift from old media to new media, or whether Assange’s desire for old media cred is proof that print is still alive (which is how I read it), let’s not forget that the average reader ultimately decides what is important and what is not. And it’s clear that this rare partnering venture, which was intended as a big media splash, has produced barely a ripple.

The shorthand is simple: America’s longest war is a confusing mess, and the average reader — who is far more fixated on joblessness — knew that already. The polls rank the war as a low public priority, and not even a global website, working in cahoots with credible old-media stalwarts, can push the war any higher. Just like all the ink-stained wretches who have learned over time that it’s tough to change the world, the WikiLeaks founder is learning this now. So let’s Tweet the guy:

Dude. Welcome to the club.

Dick Polman, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, can be reached at dpolman@phillynews.com.

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