This week marked the international coming-out party for a new media organization that could upend the sacred cows of traditional journalism. Wikileaks, an Internet-savvy investigative journalism outfit, released a video showing an American Apache helicopter open fire on a group of men, killing two Reuters employees, along with 10 other people, on July 12, 2007.
"There was no threat warranting a hail of 30mm [caliber gunfire] from above," says Anthony Martinez, a former U.S. Army noncommissioned officer who has watched thousands of hours of aerial footage of Iraq.
The video, seen through the perspective of the Apache gun camera, captures a dark moment in the Iraq war. As the American airmen chuckle over the body count, it also amounts to a damning indictment of war culture. No traditional journalism organization was able to bring it to the public, as these tapes are normally classified; Reuters filed an FOIA request but never received a response.
True to its promise to release complete source material, Wikileaks has posted the full 38-minute gun camera video on YouTube. But the focus of its Monday press conference was an annotated, 19-minute edited version, published on the site collateralmurder.com. It opens with a quote from British provocateur-cum-journalist George Orwell:
Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.
The video proceeds to transcribe the radio chatter and break down the action with highlights and arrows. A group of men gather in the street; one reporter talks on the phone and another shoulders a camera bag. Seconds later, the pilots, mistaking a camera lens peeking around a corner for an RPG, strafe a cluster of civilians. That is almost forgivable. But events turn from queasy to horrifying when the crew open fire on an unarmed van that has stopped to pick up the journalist left alive. As Wikileaks shows in a closeup, two children sitting in the front seat of the van were struck by the barrage of gunfire.
The video was sensational, and it exploded online Monday -- it's since gotten more than 2 million views on YouTube and prompting a follow-up story by the New York Times.
Many viewers were undoubtedly encountering Wikileaks for the first time, though the organization was launched in December 2006. The site, which is funded by private donors and does not accept government or corporate funding, encourages would-be whistleblowers to upload incriminating material anonymously on its website. The small editorial staff verifies submitted documents, decrypts or translates them when necessary, and then publishes them in full -- often with commentary.
This is not to imply that Wikileaks' editors are merely passive distributors of their sources' information. They cultivate and protect anonymous sources, verify submitted materials, add context, and promote important leaks. In the case of the Iraq gun-camera footage, the process began with using volunteers to help decrypt the submitted file. Then they worked with Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson to verify the video on the ground in Baghdad. Hrafnsson says he found the two children who were injured in the attack, and Wikileaks has posted recent pictures and other documents. The whole story cost the organization about U.S. $50,000, according to Julian Assange, the site's co-founder.