Since July, the New York Times has been making journalistic hay out of leaked documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provided by WikiLeaks, an organization dedicated to publishing classified information. Without the same advance access to the documents, the Washington Post has ended up chasing the Times to follow up on the other paper’s exclusives. The fact that WikiLeaks didn’t choose to work with the Post says a lot about the paper’s national and international reputation. And the situation has to be galling for the Post because the Times might not have been able to publish its WikiLeaks scoops at all if the Post hadn’t set the precedent for them almost 40 years ago.
After President Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell obtained an injunction to halt a New York Times series based on a secret report on the expansion of the Vietnam War commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and provided to the Times by RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg, the Post picked up where the Times left off. The Post refused to stop publishing their own series when William Rehnquist, then an Assistant Attorney General, asked them to hold the articles, and Rehnquist’s request for an injunction failed in district court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court backed the Times’ and the Post’s decision to publish.
That ruling gave papers a legal basis to publish sensitive material without fear of being sued. But the Post’s decision to say no to Rehnquist helped set the dynamic between publications and the government. Officials can ask that material be withheld, and publications may submit stories or documents for review in advance (as the Times has done with material it obtained from WikiLeaks). But ultimately, the decision to publish information lies with a newspaper, not with the government.
But despite the Post company’s history of standing up to the government to publish sensitive material, WikiLeaks chose the Times, rather than the Post, as the American paper it would approach with documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (the organization's leader, Julian Assange, complained earlier in the year that a Post article compared WikiLeaks to a former Iraqi information minister). And when WikiLeaks decided to stop working with the Times after the paper published critical pieces about Assange, WikiLeaks didn't turn to the Post: They offered 250,000 leaked diplomatic cables to the Wall Street Journal, which declined.
The Post’s track record on press freedom and its reporting on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars don’t appear to have mattered to WikiLeaks. When the organization picked the outlet it thought would best broadcast the messages and lessons of its document dumps, it chose the Times and the Journal over the Post. If the Post wants to land scoops like the WikiLeaks documents in the future, it’ll have to find ways to burnish its national and international reputation. The glow from the Post’s glory days has sustained it for a long time, but it’s not enough to light the way into the future.