Preemptive leaks

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2011

After looking at kids adapting to living in public, here’s the other end of the scale: internationally-notorious public figures managing their public profile. Bush administration uber-weasel* Donald Rumsfeld has learned a few choice lessons from the sudden rise of radical transparency… or at least his publicity people have.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, there are few rhetorical tactics Rumsfeld can employ to satisfy his hordes of critics. So he’s accompanying his memoir, Known and Unknown, with tons of primary source material: hundreds of raw documents detailing his thought process at the Pentagon, all searchable on his new website. This way, he’s not engaging with a debate he’s unlikely to win; he’s burying it under an avalanche of paper.

To put it uncharitably: when you’ve got a rep for being less-than-honest and unwilling to debate, you might as well let the documents speak for themselves.

This is interesting primarily because it subtly exploits a fundamental problem with all forms of communication, namely the signal-to-noise ratio. Or, to put it another way, the best way to hide needles is to put them in haystacks, and then salt the haystacks with a few distracting nuggets:

… RummyLeaks ain’t quite WikiLeaks: his documents have been officially declassified, and many paint him in quite the flattering light, on their face. But like WikiLeaks’ trove of war documents, Rumsfeld leaves it up to his readers to dig through a huge trove to find their own gems. A transparency measure, sure. But one that has the effect of snowing a reader under a ton of data, leaving them in the meantime with the narrative that he’s shaping.

I doubt this is going to make a huge difference to public perception of ol’ Rummy; them as have always backed him will continue to do so, and them as have always seen him as a weasel won’t take this hand-picked and carefully-manicured splurge of documentation as proof to the contrary. But it shows that old dogs really can learn new tricks… which is something to bear in mind every time you see your elected officials acting like they haven’t left the house since 1994. They’re not as naive or technologically out-of-touch as they’d like you to think.

[ * Yes, that’s a personal value judgement on my part; no, I have no interest in retracting it. ]