News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Be careful not to leak on anyone's wiki in South Dakota

The New York Times, disparaged as it is for being "main stream," is still the most constant news source in the country.  With the publication of State Department cables provided by WikiLeaks, it has once again published real news about how our government operates.  Britain's Guardian gave the Times an initial installment of 270 messages, and the Times staff went to work summarizing them and providing context (something that befuddles bloggers), and redacting names where the staff thought the risk was not worth the exposure.

The way The Times received the cables is hugely ironic.  WikiLeaks dealt directly with the newspaper for the release of the Pentagon series of documents.   Presumably, because The Times did a personality profile of WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange which was not terribly complimentary about his ego and personality quirks, The Times was not included in the negotiations over the release of the State Department cache of messages.  He reacted to being subjected to such observations as world leaders might act when observations on their behavior are made public:  they won't deal with whoever made the observations. 

For some of us who have been around the track a few times, the documents confirm what we already knew and provide some specific instances of`how things work.  That includes an editorial practice in the American press as it tends more and more toward tabloid journalism.  The Times chose the cables that seem to promise the most conflict.  Out of the quarter of a million cables, how many, one must wonder, show people quietly and competently going about their diplomatic tasks?  How many quiet successes are buried in the avalanche of cables?  Who could possibly give a shit?  The New York Times, that's who.

A few people have noted that the cables show American diplomats diligently and competently doing their work for the country while many foreign diplomats are playing games  of deceit and deception.  But the American personnel can be seen as part of big government and an intellectually oriented staff and will be regarded as national detriments in today's political climate.  We might consider outsourcing our diplomatic service to North Korea and Iran,  as outsourcing seems to be an effective means of decimating the middle class, which is a goal among many American leaders,  existing and would-be ones.   
In all endeavors that require maintaining relationships and working with people from different places with different agendas, a necessary part of the work is assessing the character and personalities one must deal with.  Diplomacy is no different from much organizational work, except the stakes are often higher.   There are those one encounters who are straightforward, trustworthy, and not ruled by quirks of personality or character with whom relationships are respectful and productive and with whom negotiations, when needed, can be done with an honest give-and-take.  But such people are not the ones who dominate world affairs.  Those who keep the world on edge are those like the leaders of Iran, North Korea, old Iraq, perhaps reworked Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela--you get the picture--and they are certified dipshits.  They often rise to positions of leadership because they are not guided by the restraints of respect, courtesy intelligence, and coherent processes of negotiation, and they are dedicated flatterers.  They  become leaders precisely because they follow agendas, follow orders, and are not afraid to make foolery a guiding principle of behavior on the international stage.  World politics are not unlike American politics.  Stupidity is a highly regarded character trait, and it is much in vogue at the present time. 

One of the aspects that the cables demonstrate, but is not noticed to most in our current intellectual state, is that the writers of the reports know the difference between idle, derogatory gossip and careful reports.  For the most part, when they report a significant character or personality flaw that might reflect on  trustworthiness and competence, they back up the report with specifics of behavior and attitude. A good example is the report on some influential leaders in Russia and the activities they engage in.  This kind of information is essential in knowing the personal and cultural factors that are involved in international relationships and agreements. It is essential in determining whether diplomatic efforts can be  productive and trusted.  The American Indian is a living monument to what happens when treaties and other agreements are frauds.

The assessments made of leaders, nations, and circumstances are essential for the conduct of constructive business.  Most of what WikiLeaks has published is such necessary assessments.  The big question mark is what happens to diplomatic relationships when the people the nation has to work with know how they are being assessed.

A newspaper editor I worked for had an effective policy on this matter.  Among the staff, he would not tolerate any false, derogatory gossip.  If he heard a staff member saying negative and derogatory stuff about another, the staff member would be called in to his office to present the evidence.  Generally, these meetings in his office involved both the accuser and the accused.  The accuser would be asked to produce the factual information behind any negative assessments of another person.  If the accusation was factually true, the matter would be dealt with as a problem that had to be resolved.  If the accusation was not true, the accuser would be fired on the spot.  (A majority of bloggers would have ended up on the sidewalk with a final check, if they worked for this newspaper.)

The editor fully believed that false and disparaging accusations was a cancer that affected the competence and credibility of the newspaper in reporting news.  When staff members engaged in  false slanders against each other, the organization was put in danger.  And he could cite example after example of how this proved to be so.  On the other hand, valid criticisms were needed to correct and improve problems that the staff might have.  And so it is with State Department personnel.  To function competently, they have to identify the duds in international relationships, but to work with facts, not personal attitudes.

With the Freedom of  Information Act,  the WikiLeaks cables would eventually be made public through routine means.  The early and contemporary release may provide some strained relationships when world leaders and nations know how they are being assessed.  But the American people will know, if they care, that the State Department has standards of diligence and competence and emphasizes facts over attitudes.

Having spent years as a negotiator for college faculty (and occasionally some public school system faculty), I have been involved in the kind of character and situation appraisals that are reflected by the WikiLeaks deluge of documents.  Some of the toughest negotiations were with opposites at the bargaining table who were honest, but the most frustrating were with people whose character and personality traits made honest discussion and negotiation impossible.

A common procedure in any kind of negotiations is fact-checking the presentations of the opposite side to insure they are telling the truth and the whole truth.  The real problems with truth-telling show up, however, when some provision of a contract is being applied or has not been applied.  One university administrator felt strongly that having to adhere to a contract undercut his executive authority.  So he lied and deceived a lot.  People who had to deal with him wrote down exactly what he said and what he did.   He held his position because he flattered the power base that he served and because he carried out their policies.  But eventually, the people involved in living up to the contract simply avoided him entirely.  The faculty learned how to do their jobs by working around him and staying out of his way.  Once when he announced a faculty meeting to explain how he was going to administer the contract, only three people showed up.  He and those in whose behalf he served got the message. 

South Dakota, which does not have a Freedom of Information Act and gives state and local governments great latitude in keeping state business secret, needs a version of WikiLeaks.  That is a foolish statement, because no news media in the state  would have the courage to publish such documents if they were given them.  So, South Dakota operates like a third world autocracy.  While Bill Janklow was governor, the state had money squirreled away in secret bank accounts.  He and his cronies would not tell the state treasurer, a Democrat, how much or where it was being held.  And the state treasurer, who apparently had a good inkling, would not reveal the money because doing so could earn him a jail sentence under state law.

Locally, in Aberdeen, we have a history of conflicts within the police department which involve the firing of a chief of police, the firing of detectives, and murder investigations of dubious accuracy and competence.  There is no way citizens can find out how the people they hire to work for them are doing.  And so we live under a cloud of doubt and suspicion. 

The WikiLeaks founder has an international warrant out for his arrest and one of his accomplices in releasing the Pentagon cache of communications is being held for trial, but we the people can find out and know the kind of work being done in our behalf.  That is, for those who give a shit.  But we in South Dakota live in ignorance about state and local affairs.  And no one gives a...   well, you know..


Douglas said...

Interesting post as usual.

BUT, while I haven't read a single one of the messages, my guess is that much of it is in the cover your ass with paper mode based on my own experience in state government.

There is also a huge element of hypocrisy in government outrage over the possible danger to informants or information sources. How many thousands of innocents have been killed by "collateral damage" in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I guess the more tangled problem is whether unnecessary deaths because of misguided or incompetent government operation better or worse than what might be called collateral damage from a Wiki leak?

caheidelberger said...

Who needs the news media? Show me South Dakota documents of import, and I'll run 'em!

I particularly appreciate the point you make that the cables are not the idle gossip of bored staffers but carefully worded and supported assessments offered by intelligent public servants.

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