Julian Assange Is a Better Journalist Than Many of His Media Critics
Journalism is at risk not just from government but from media types who see their jobs as protecting the powerful from embarrassment.
The political class and certain media circles have been celebrating over of the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. To watch their respective reactions is to recognize that, too often, the two groups see themselves as one and the same. Their interests and opinions coincide, and they don't like having their authority challenged by loose-cannon journalists who reveal inconvenient secrets and expose the powers-that-be to unwelcome scrutiny.
On April 11, British police dragged Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy that had shielded him for years from Swedish sexual assault charges (later dropped) and, mostly, from the wrath of the U.S. government over WikiLeaks' work with now-imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Together, Assange and Manning exposed state secrets including a U.S. helicopter attack that killed civilians, close ties between the government of Pakistan and the Taliban, and diplomatic cables revealing the U.S. government's private positions to be very different from those presented to the public.
Assange was "arrested on behalf of the United States authorities," police announced last Thursday. A new Ecuadorian administration, interested in closer relations with the U.S. and leery of transparency because of reports that have implicated the current president in corruption, seems to have been the precipitating factor.
Unsurprisingly, U.S. officials generally gloated over the arrest. "I'm glad to see the wheels of justice are finally turning," tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
"He's our property. We can get the facts and truth from him," added Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
The president was a little more hands-off, though just as telling with his non-reaction. "I know nothing about Wikileaks," Trump insisted after Assange's arrest, even though he was a big fan of the transparency organization back when it was making life difficult for his opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 presidential campaign.
More troubling is the cheerleading for the arrest among people who supposedly make their living by doing exactly what Manning and Assange did with WikiLeaks—reporting information that government officials would prefer to remain unknown. And this cheerleading extends well beyond the intelligence and law-enforcement community castoffs who now infest media outlets.
"The administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime," The New York Times editorialized, amidst some regret that it was the Trump administration behind the arrest and indictment of the WikiLeaks founder. "The case of Mr. Assange," the editorial board sniffed, "could help draw a sharp line between legitimate journalism and dangerous cybercrime."
"Mr. Assange is not a free-press hero," agreed The Washington Post's editorial board. "Yes, WikiLeaks acquired and published secret government documents, many of them newsworthy, as shown by their subsequent use in newspaper articles (including in The Post). Contrary to the norms of journalism, however, Mr. Assange sometimes obtained such records unethically."
Unethically? Assange is charged with a conspiracy "to facilitate Manning's acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website," according to the federal indictment.
"The Assange indictment is weaker than you might expect," comments former federal prosecutor Ken White. "Basically, the story it tells is (1) Manning gave Wikileaks stuff after she downloaded it, which isn't a crime by Wikileaks, and (2) Assange encouraged her to go after more files and offered to help by cracking a password to give her broader access, but it didn't work."
It's worth emphasizing that the newspapers objecting to Julian Assange's conduct and journalistic credentials still boast of their publication of the Pentagon Papers, which contained troubling revelations about the government's conduct of the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department analyst, secretly photocopied documents and passed them to the press, which battled the government to publish them.
Both the Post and the Times also published revelations about privacy-threatening global and domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency based on information illegally copied by Edward Snowden while he worked as a contractor for the CIA.
The fact that Assange and WikiLeaks act much as do other journalistic operations is precisely why the Obama administration didn't press charges, despite rage over inconvenient revelations equal to that of the current administration.
"Justice officials said they looked hard at Assange but realized that they have what they described as a 'New York Times problem,'" the Post noted in 2013. "If the Justice Department indicted Assange, it would also have to prosecute the New York Times and other news organizations and writers who published classified material."
Then again, The Washington Post has been consistently awful on this point in recent years. "The first U.S. priority should be to prevent Mr. Snowden from leaking information that harms efforts to fight terrorism and conduct legitimate intelligence operation," the newspaper's editorial board demanded in 2013, even after its own news pages ran some of that information. The Post's current chin-strokers seem to view publication of facts embarrassing to the powerful as an unseemly leftover from the bad old days.
Maybe the familiar—if out-of-vogue—nature of Assange's and WikiLeaks's conduct is why so much of the commentary targeted at him focuses on his objectivity, his worn appearance, and his allegedly unpleasant personality and hygiene. But anybody spending much time around journalists should be careful about pretending any of that is unusual for the profession.
Did Assange show bias in his choice of targets? Maybe so—but bias is so common throughout journalism as to be unremarkable. Charges that he worked on behalf of the Russian government would be extremely unfortunate, if proven. But such collaboration would not be unprecedented for a profession that has a history of enabling officials foreign and domestic.
"American reporters spied for the CIA. They spied for the Soviets. And they spied for the British—boy, did they spy for the British," Glenn Garvin wrote in the March issue of Reason.
In addition, a few years locked in an apartment with resentful hosts, waiting to be snatched by security operatives, might make anybody a little unpresentable. Three doctors who examined Assange last year wrote, "it is our professional opinion that his continued confinement is dangerous physically and mentally to him." Of the worst tales about his conduct in the embassy, one of the examining physicians, Sean Love, added, "This is a complete smear. This is meant to degrade his humanity."
Whatever Assange's qualities as a human being when he entered his refuge in London, it should be no surprise that he came out worse for wear—or that many people believe he's been mistreated.
"The Working Group maintains that the arbitrary detention of Mr. Assange should be brought to an end, that his physical integrity and freedom of movement be respected, and that he should be entitled to an enforceable right to compensation," a U.N. human rights panel ruled in 2016.
Instead, Julian Assange was dragged from the Ecuadorian embassy, with his arrest cheered by other journalists who now regret that their profession once expected them to behave as he does.
"Criminally prosecuting a publisher for the publication of truthful information would be a first in American history, and unconstitutional," warns Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Further, while there is no First Amendment right to crack a government password, this indictment characterizes as 'part of' a criminal conspiracy the routine and protected activities journalists often engage in as part of their daily jobs, such as encouraging a source to provide more information."
That's all true. But journalism is at risk not just from government assaults on freedom of the press, but from media types who see their role not in scrutinizing the powers-that-be, but in protecting those powers from the public—and in backing the punishment of people who still do real journalism.