If Walt Disney had actually been cryonically frozen and subsequently revived, he’d be laughing his ass off with delight at the reactionary dreck his namesake film company has just pumped out with The Fifth Estate. The film’s central themes would have been right up the notorious right winger’s alley — from the racist stereotype of the ‘good Arab’ State Department asset to its reactionary embrace of censorship, lest full disclosure ‘harm’ a government busily committing and covering up the evidence of its war crimes.
Wikileaks has opined at some length on both the film’s egregious factual inaccuracies and the lethal intent of its embedded meta-messages. Certainly The Fifth Estate serves as a rolling character assassination of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange — in these kinds of toxic infotainment fabrications, it’s always more important to spin the politics of personality than to honestly examine the realpolitic of governments and the corporations they represent. But the film is just one cog in the wider wheel of wholesale assault on advocacy journalism and freedom of the press – and it diligently parrots the larger spin that government authorities use to subvert an uncensored review of their crimes.
Every repressive state worth its salt understands that knowledge is power – and that secrecy is the stronghold of official deceit, with censorship that protects liars and criminals at the heart of some of the worst government crimes of the century. One might ask the Iraqis, whose neighborhoods and lives have been torn apart by the official fictions at the heart of the pretext for U.S. war on that nation in 2003 – but thousands are dead and thousands more are still dying, and the dead, as a rule, don’t speak up much. Whistleblowers, advocates and reporters – including journalists of the civilian/citizen/advocacy sort –commonly take up that task for the maimed and murdered.
Wikileaks has been at the forefront of the contemporary effort to push out uncensored, unvarnished data about crimes that range from corporate banking scandals to the U.S. massacre of Reuters reporters in Iraq. What really catches in the government’s craw? You’re free to review and assess that data unencumbered by big media spin or government censorship. How else to explain the feds’ debauched assault on independent journalist Barrett Brown, who’s facing over 100 years in prison for essentially repasting a publicly available link that contained publicly available data “that he was researching in his capacity as a journalist,” according to his lawyer.
Two principles have formed the core of Wikileaks’ operative mores since its formation: uncensored information and a rigorous commitment to protect the anonymity of the whistleblowers who provide that information. Unsurprisingly, authoritarian governments, criminal corporate enterprises and their toadies just hate these two prongs of potential exposure – full disclosure of primary source material and protection of the sources of that information. Just ask Richard Nixon how he felt about Deep Throat.
For a more contemporary example, just ask the censorship-happy Obama administration, which is increasingly being viewed as the single most hostile government to whistleblowers and freedom of the press in the history of history, at least among our vaunted Western ‘democracies.’ According to analysts like Timothy Karr of Free Press, who calls Obama “like Nixon, but worse,” the Obama administration has drawn liberally from the Nixon playbook to silence and criminalize people and projects who expose government wrongdoing.
Mass media and pop culture are potent tools in the effort to manufacture the public consent that neo-liberal states and their corporate allies require to smooth the course of their economic, political and environmental predations. Note, for example, the corporate news networks’ ceaseless conflation of ‘U.S. interests’ with corporate interests, when so many ‘U.S. interests’ like global trade deals and ‘humanitarian intervention’ are clearly terrible for most people and the planet but great for the quarterly bottom line of corporate interests. Mass media also serves as a critical linchpin in their ruling elite owners’ efforts to frame the pesky obstacles to our repression and disenfranchisement – the whistleblowers who make evidence of their crimes available — as ‘terrorists’, ‘leakers’, criminals and whatnot.
These reinforcing memes of ruling elite agendas pop up as visual punch-lines in a variety of formats, from high-rent docudramas like The Fifth Estate to the endless stream of blabbermouths on the nightly news shrieking over the perils of government leaks – occasionally bookended with B-roll of solemn flag-folding at some poor sucker soldier’s funeral. The broad goal: to twist your heart and turn your head from the real predations made possible by the growing security state and the authoritarian corporate monolith it lives to support.
You don’t have to channel surf much on the idiot box to find shows that reinforce these motifs, whether it’s Showtime’s Homeland franchise and its endless demonization of Arabs and Muslims of every stripe or re-runs of the openly proto-fascist ‘24.’ For that matter, virtually every formula cop show on the market backs up these unabashedly neo-jackboot notions, whether you’re eyeballing bunk science on the endless CSI spin-offs or inadvertently landing on Fox Noise. The messaging is pretty consistent, namely that we mustn’t know too much about what our governments are doing because (choose your favorite canard here): we’re not smart enough to evaluate uncensored information on our own; we help the ‘terrorists’; we endanger our ‘friends’; the ‘bad’ guys win; the government security state really does have ‘our’ best interest at heart.
That’s what makes big-budget pop culture endeavors like The Fifth Estate so valuable. Non-institutional players unwilling to submit to self-censorship in the service of the government’s notion of what’s good for you are simply intolerable to any jackboot state worth its salt. Fortunately for our overlords, most corporate news outlets are pretty terminally supine to this agenda. Not so Wikileaks and its sources. That’s one reason the U.S. Senate has once again taken up the effort to define ‘legitimate’ journalism, and by extension, who and what remains worthy of protection under what remains of our shredded concepts of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Wikileaks is, of course, excluded from this protection, such that it is – and more and more, it’s less and less.
Make no mistake. The Fifth Estate’s shallow smear campaign has more than Wikileaks in its sites. Besides taking a series of cheap shots at Chelsea Manning, its broad themes undergird the same sorts of distortions that have been used to dirty up whistleblowers and information freedom advocates who include Stratfor whistleblower Jeremy Hammond, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowdon, the late, great tech innovator and DemandProgress founder Aaron Swartz, and CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou.
This is particularly relevant today as public opinion continues to evolve in the wake of Snowden’s work to reveal the sweeping scope of government spying on our private lives, and as big media continues to scramble to preserve its profit points and control of the flow of information to the public sphere. Hence, the utility of pop culture endeavors that support our ruling elites’ official embrace of repressive tolerance — the kind of state-sanctioned permission designed to preserve the veneer of democratic rights while undercutting any truly serious challenge to a status quo that is literally killing the planet.
At the core of corporate pop culture projects like ‘24’, The Fifth Estate, and media productions of this ilk is the push to advance the demolition of personal privacy while trumpeting the imperatives of state secrecy. This dovetails nicely with the joint corporate/government agenda to sell us shit – be it products or policies – while undermining our ability to gauge that product’s safety, efficacy or morality. While the The Fifth Estate script includes a couple of toss-away bromides about Wikileaks’ commitment to the anonymity of its whistle-blowing information providers, its real thrust is to boost the fabricated ‘common sense’ notion that some information just isn’t ready for prime time consumption, ergo we should rely on ‘responsible’ outlets like The New York Times to parse the data for us. That seems like a pretty dubious strategy, given the Times’ historic embrace of reporters like congenital liar Judith Miller or congenital hidden fister Thomas Friedman.
That ‘not ready for prime time’ frame is particularly important to state/corporate apparatchiks who’ve been screaming about disclosures like the Stratfor and NSA leaks, because the raw data in these kinds of leaks exposes the sweep of corporate/government collusion in our disenfranchisement (and re Stratfor, the pathetic idiocy of their ‘intelligence’). And that kind of government/corporate collusion is truly menacing, whether it’s used to push back public opposition to Keystone or support the bankster/government assault on Occupy Wall Street.
The information that our rulers can’t commodify and manage, they suppress – and projects like Wikileaks monkeywrench that scheme. Above all else, the U.S. government and its corporate allies just cannot abide anonymity, unless you’re on their team. You can’t, after all, crush disclosure and dissent if you can’t ID the dissidents or finger the whistleblowers. Repressive governments work mightily to shut down uncensored, anonymous sources of information and opposition organizing – just ask Athens Indymedia, for example, or Jeremy Hammond, who’s facing a decade in prison for exposing the Stratfor schmucks.
Anonymity undermines managed dissent, and we live in an age of managed dissent. See, for example, the vagaries of the ‘official’ U.S. peace movement, which for more than a decade willfully dismantled itself every 18 months to devote itself to boosterism for Democratic Party candidates like Barak Obama and his congressional cohort of corporate toadies. That’s hardly a recipe for truly radical resistance to state power or state repression – and that’s A-OK with the state, which would just as soon brand you a terrorist and put you on a kill list as allow you to get away with whistleblowing unmolested.
If you think this is hyperbole, then check out the promo posters going up globally for The Fifth Estate. The Benedict Cumberbatch cum Julian Assange image fills the frame and meets you eye to eye, with the word ‘traitor’ pasted just below. Subtle. That harmonizes rather nicely with the beyond-the-pale – but not beyond-the-possible – suggestion from one of the nation’s highest-ranking intelligence officials that Snowden, now that he’s been publicly identified as the NSA whistleblower, ought to be executed.
Wikileaks has just released its own film, a new documentary called Mediastan, which chronicles their largely fruitless efforts to partner with journalists and news outlets from South Asia to the United States to utilize unredacted content that documents U.S. government shenanigans. Mediastan may just concurrently help undermine the funding blockade that hostile corporate governments like the United States have sought to impose on the whistleblowing project. It’s sure as hell a better watch than the corporate smear campaign coming from Walt’s crime partners to a theater near you.
Chris Geovanis is a Chicago media activist, advocacy journalist and member of the HammerHard MediaWorks collective. You can reach her via Twitter @heavyseas, via her Facebook page or at chrisgeovanis(at)gmail.com.