Bill Keller (presumably the real Bill Keller) was angry. How angry? Apparently, all-caps angry:
THERE IS A FAKE OP-ED GOING AROUND UNDER MY NAME, ABOUT WIKILEAKS.EMPHASIS ON “FAKE. “AS IN, NOT MINE.
— Bill Keller (@nytkeller) July 29, 2012
Wikileaks had some fun at his expense by going to the trouble of faking an oped under his name and posting it on what, at first glance, appeared to be the New York Times website. On closer inspection, you might notice that the URL was for “opinion-nytimes.com,” rather than the legit “nytimes.com.” I wonder what made Keller, a columnist for the paper and its former executive editor, angrier — that he was the butt of what he called a “childish prank” or that the column he supposedly wrote was so stilted?
Josh Stearns tracked the hoax through the twittersphere and outs some of the journalists/bloggers who fell victim to it (though there’s no real shame in getting snookered.) It was a sophisticated and well-thought out stunt. Wikileaks came clean about 7 hours after Keller’s all-caps rant.
Yes. We admit it. WikiLeaks (Assange & co) and our great supporters where behind the successful NYTimes banking blockade hoax on @nytkeller.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 29, 2012
For the most part, the joke falls into the category of “no harm, no foul.” There’s no real damage to Keller’s reputation but it’s also unlikely Wikileaks will get any long-term advantage from pulling it off. Yes, they got lots of press and social media buzz Sunday and will probably ride that bump for the next couple days; but while they succeeded in shining a light on the unfair treatment they’ve received from credit card companies, I wonder if it will be worth it?
The argument could be made that the attention from the hoax put Wikileaks in the spotlight and helped it raise some money. Speaking for myself, what makes me want to support an organization like Wikileaks is the role it plays in exposing corruption. That’s what it has done well, albeit not without controversy.
But I’m guessing the majority of people who hear about the hoax will not actually read the fake Keller column, much less understand the subtext and what it means to Wikileaks’ survival. Bottom line: This piece will have no effect on any policies by the U.S. Justice Department or major financial institutions that are targeting Wikileaks. All it did was allow Julian Assange and Wikileaks to vent some frustration, while potentially damaging its brand with one of its core, if not most important, audiences.
Wikileaks puts documents on the web, making them available for journalists and the public at-large to do with them what they will. Its business model relies on journalists to pick up the ball and run with it. These are the same journalists that Wikileaks pissed off (journalists are very protective of their tribe). Here’s Charles Ornstein from Pro Publica:
— Charles Ornstein (@charlesornstein) July 29, 2012
Sure, you can argue that it was just a joke and people should lighten up. For sure, there is a cherished place in our culture for political parody. The Yes Men are masters of it — and I’m a fan of their work. Greenpeace’s campaign against Shell is brilliant. But pranks and stunts are part and parcel to what the Yes Men and Greenpeace do on a regular basis. Not so much with Wikileaks.
Maybe this episode has no effect on Wikileaks, or even turns out to be a net positive because of new contributors. Or maybe the next time it does a document dump, some reporter or producer wonders if Wikileaks might have doctored or faked one of those memos as, you know, a prank. As they say, credibility is hard won and easily lost.