Where’s the Line between Journalist and Source?


A version of this story ran in the April 2012 issue.

For the next several months, plenty of eyes will turn to Texas for insider intelligence. The emails of Austin-based firm Stratfor, a private global security analysis company, have been hacked and given to WikiLeaks.

In late February, WikiLeaks started publishing more than five million emails from the company; the process could go on for months, maybe years. WikiLeaks has partnered with 26 media outlets around the world, including Rolling Stone, to analyze and provide news coverage about the material. None of the outlets are in Texas.

Initial findings from the correspondence underscore the sadly redundant and deliberate ways that Big Government and Big Business work together. There is a mash-up of surveillance details about political campaigns and activist organizations. There are insights into how Dow Chemical, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are linked to the Obama administration, and hints about how the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Marines fit into the mix.

Beyond the evidence of government-and-business collusion, the emails contain disturbing suggestions about the relationship between reporters and the elusive world of “intelligence gathering,” in which reporters can grow far too close to the people they cover, influencing what they report and how they report it. It’s an old problem, one that scorched former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose exclusives about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were later proved wrong.

Stratfor has posted a note on its website that should resonate with anyone who questions how journalism is practiced:

“Stratfor has worked to build good sources in many countries around the world, as any publisher of geopolitical analysis would do. … We have developed these relationships with individuals and partnerships with local media in a straightforward manner, and we are committed to meeting the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct.”

Alternately, here’s what WikiLeaks had to say about how reporters from Argentina to Azerbaijan delivered information to Stratfor’s offices in downtown Austin:

“Stratfor did secret deals with dozens of media organisations and journalists—from Reuters to the Kiev Post … While it is acceptable for journalists to swap information or be paid by other media organisations, because Stratfor is a private intelligence organisation that services governments and private clients these relationships are corrupt or corrupting.”

The reaction in the U.S. media says volumes. The Nation and Rolling Stone are predictably not lingering over how the emails were lifted from Stratfor. Rather they are fixated on what the emails contain. The New York Times, on the other hand, has noticeably shied away from the content of the emails, instead concentrating on criminal allegations and the role the FBI has played in investigating “data stolen from Stratfor.” Good luck finding any drilled-down work in the Texas media about the information contained in the emails, or the extent to which it was gathered from working journalists here and abroad.

That lack of coverage doesn’t just indicate a lack of curiosity, but an ongoing culture in Texas media circles: Intelligence organizations, spin doctors and think tanks have long relied on sympathetic state journalists. Some young Austin journalists go to work as “open source intelligence monitors” for Stratfor. Some do research for Public Strategies (run in part by Mark McKinnon, who years ago was the crusading editor of The Daily Texan, the University of Texas at Austin student newspaper, before he single-handedly invented George W. Bush’s media campaigns). Some journalists even move on from years at the liberal news weekly The Austin Chronicle to become affiliated with conservative policy shops like The Manhattan Institute.

Such “exchange” of information may also be less deliberate than the deals suggested in the Stratfor/WikiLeaks revelations. It could take other forms, maybe some social lubrication at The Austin Club, The Petroleum Club, The Houston Club.

One thing is sure: More emails are coming this year. And the more the story is ignored in the Texas media, the more it says about the Texas media.