A Conversation with David Sanger of the New York Times

David E. Sanger is Chief Washington Correspondent for the New York Times. He was brought to Middlebury by MCAB to give a talk entitled “Wikileaks and the Toppling of Middle-Eastern Dictators: Covering a Winter of Global Surprises.” In addition to his formal talk, Sanger met with students and participated in classes as a guest lecturer. After one class session, I had the chance to talk briefly with him about his work and some broader issues rased by WikiLeaks and online journalism.

Photo from the Campus

At Mead Chapel tonight, Sanger spoke on what he called “the journalistic adventures of the past six months.” He had played an important role in the Times’ deliberations over how to deal with the huge cache of US State Department documents released by the WikiLeaks whistleblower site last fall.

(See State’s Secrets, the hub for the Times reports on the documents, and The War Logs, a similar page for those leaked documents pertaining to the Iraq War. A full book of the findings, Open Secrets, is also available for purchase online. Sanger’s most recent book is The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power.)

My questions were not stated quite as articulately as I’ve written them below. However, I’ve simplified them to keep the focus on Sanger’s responses.

MiddBlog: What was your role in the deliberations over how to cover WikiLeaks?

Sanger: I was part of a group of reporters that we [the Times] assembled to try to … understand the scope of these cables—what they said, what they didn’t say—[and to] try to assess what was news in them.

[W]e organized ourselves into groups to write stories based on the cables. And then, because we’re doing this in an age of electronic journalism, [we] could link the stories to the individual cables so readers had the chance to do something readers rarely got to do in a previous age, which was go back, read the cables for themselves, and come to a conclusion about whether [we] interpreted them accurately.

That idea [of going straight to the source document] is wonderful, but then I also think about—especially in blogs and online news—the fact that there are vast databases of fact, and then there’s pure opinion writing. [D]o you have any idea of the extent to which people are actually willing to go back to the original documents if given the option?

I don’t know how often they do that, although I’m sure one could look at that statistically and come to some answer, because you can track what people click on. [Editor’s note for juniors: potential thesis topic?]

But you get to a bigger point about the web. [T]he wonderful thing about the web is that it’s been greatly democratizing. Unlike the first 220 years of American democracy, you no longer need a printing press to express your opinion. It used to be, not so long ago, you either had to write an op-ed and hope somebody published it, or write a letter to the editor and hope somebody published it. You didn’t own the printing press. With the new capability [to publish online], you can own the printing press.

There are only two downsides to that. The first is, there’s so much opinion out there, that just sorting through it all … is quite a chore. The second problem is that creating opinion is a lot cheaper than actually doing reporting. Reporting still requires a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of money and, frequently, getting … into some pretty wild and sometimes dangerous places.

One of my favorite expressions—I wish it was original to me—is, “everybody’s entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own set of facts.” One of the reasons I’ve stayed on the news side of reporting for so many years at the New York Times is I believe, more than ever, we need to be putting out a base of fact on which all of this blogging thrives and lives. It’s like having oxygen in the water: the fish aren’t going to live if they don’t get the factual oxygen.

Julian Assange, in his writings and speeches, calls himself a journalist. Does he count as a journalist? Does Wikileaks itself count as journalism? And if not, what makes the difference?

There’s no licensing of journalists. It’s not like lawyers, doctors or plumbers, … so I assume that just about anybody who wants to declare themselves a journalist could.

In my image of what journalists do each day, I’m not sure that Wikileaks qualifies because what we [journalists] try to do is take information, report elsewhere [than from one single source], get a balanced view as much as we can, … and then try to present it all in context.

Julian Assange has described something very different. He has described a political philosophy that some call anarchy—I’m not quite sure it reaches to that—and basically makes the argument for mak[ing] everything public. And he would do this with these great data dumps that had no interpretation at all. No editing at all, no editorial judgments at all.

I think he came, over time, to understand why some information is redacted. It’s redacted to keep people alive or out of jail. So he has begun to perform, late in the game, some journalistic-related activities. But … I wouldn’t say that he or the Wikileaks organization is a journalistic entity.

Was negotiating those redactions a difficult or drawn-out process for the Times?

[The process was] difficult and compressed. We went through the documents ourselves, and some of the redactions were obvious.  If you had the name of a Chinese dissident who showed up at the gates of the American embassy, … you wouldn’t want to publish his name—you knew what was going to happen to him.

We got into a protracted debate with the [US] government about what [to] do with information that’s merely embarrassing but not necessarily going to result in depriving somebody of their life or liberty. That’s where most of the arguments took place.

We compressed [the deliberations] over a fairly limited period of time: basically Thanksgiving week of last year. We went to the government at the beginning of that week and told them what we had, and … what the publication date for the first story was going to be, which was the following Sunday—basically 6 days.

We didn’t make them go through all 250,000 documents to guess what we were going to publish. We showed them the documents we were writing from, … and they came back with some suggested redactions. Many [of the redactions] we had already done, some of them we agreed to, and many of them we didn’t agree to.

How did you end up in your current job? As a senior that’s on my mind.

I had been a stringer [part-time writer] for the Times in college [at Harvard]. When I got out of college, I joined up with the Times in the lowliest position, but the one that was open, which was copyboy. This was in the days before computers, when we actually still did run pieces of paper around the newsroom and they got edited by hand.

You’d write in your spare time and work your way up, and a small number of those copyboys and copygirls got made into reporter trainees and then ultimately into reporters. That process pretty much doesn’t exist anymore, because most people come to the Times from journalistic careers someplace else.

Then, I worked on the investigation into the Challenger explosion in 1986. And the team I was working with was the first to find how the Challenger accident was no accident at all, but in fact a series of events that had happened in probably a dozen previous flights but just hadn’t resulted in the explosion of the aircraft and was covered up. [The Times] won a Pulitzer prize for that work, and soon after that I became a Foreign Correspondent, spent six years abroad, then came back to Washington and did a variety jobs including White House Correspondent before I went into my current job [as Chief Washington Correspondent].

Thank you so much for taking some time.

Thank you.

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