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The New York Times’ Executive Editor, William Keller, launched a scathing personal attack on Julian Assange in yesterday’s Sunday Magazine cover story. This odd behavior prompts these thoughts.
Truth is everywhere praised – but the demand always exceeds the supply. So it is for integrity and honesty as well. Always elusive in the public realm, they now are on the point of extinction. These qualities have given way to spin, to fables, to confected virtual realities, to dissembling. Indeed to outright lies and deceit. Perhaps even more ominous than the growing number of perpetrators is the legion of enablers and accessories. The latter are proliferating everywhere – especially in the media.
There are three paramount functions that the press in a free society is supposed to serve: to inform accurately, completely and fairly; to observe critically the conduct of our government and to bring forth any dubious activities; and to sustain a public dialogue on policies of consequence. Through the 9/11 decade, the media have fallen far short of this standard. That holds for the quality press, of which The New York Times is universally seen as the gold standard. It is past due to recognize that venerable paper’s dubious record of performance – a performance at sharp variance with its reputation. For years, its editors were accomplices to the Bush administration’s most baneful activities. It most notably did so in acting as a vehicle for transmitting the skein of lies that paved the way for the Iraq adventure (remember Judith Miller & Michael Gordon on WMDs). Let us recall as well its decision to bury the story of illegal surveillance and wiretaps of Americans at home for a year before the 2004 election because, as its Executive Director lamely and belatedly said, the paper’s policy is not to display details of matters that may lead to legal proceedings. This is the rational of a kept press in an autocracy, not a pillar of American democracy.
The NYT’s editors have endorsed, with only the slightest of qualifiers, the American occupation of Iraq; its goal of keeping residual military forces there and of meddling in the country’s domestic politics; the escalation in Afghanistan II for some still obscure purpose that the Times never has questioned; drone attacks in Pakistan coupled to the Obama White House’s campaign of shoving Islamabad into a full fledged civil war against the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups; the confrontational stance re. Iran that ejects serious security talks; outright American interference in Lebanon to ensure that the obedient Mr. Harari remains Premier at all costs; and of course the embrace of Israel’s ultra-nationalist government. On the last, thinly veiled advocacy of the prevailing Jerusalem line ignores the plight of the Gazans whose brutalization the NYT’s editors implicitly support by staying mum on the those flagrant humanitarian abuses. The Goldstone report is hedged with caveats and questions in the news page and sidelined in the editorial page. The Israeli assault on the Turkish flotilla is brushed off as a minor irritant. Most recently, the astounding revelations of how Washington has connived with the Israelis and the abject Palestinian marionette Mr. Abbas to sell-out his people got barely a mention in the news section and no editorial comment. No critical citation of Condoleezza Rice’s plan to resettle Palestinians in desolate Patagonia – a haunting echo of the Nazis’ short-lived scheme to dump the Jews in Madagascar, of Stalin’s to deposit the Soviet Jews in Khabarovsk, or the project to ship Ms Rice’s own ancestors en masse to Liberia.
Much of the above noted positions can be viewed as normal behavior that conforms to the paper’s right to editorialize. It is indeed defensible so long as the editors admit openly what their bottom line position is and the reasoning behind it. To hide behind a screen of righteousness, of posing as the truth teller to the world, though, is dishonest. So, too, is the pose of dispassionate neutrality: “we reasonable and responsible people all agree on how to interpret X, Y & Z and what we should do about it” is its trademark tone. On some vital issues, the Times has acted with blatant dishonesty. The WMD weapons in Iraq conspiracy and the hiding of its knowledge about domestic espionage are the outstanding examples.
The latter deserves the closest attention. For the widespread belief remains that the one thing The New York Times can be counted on is to defend the principles and practices of civil liberties in the United States. This is the bedrock commitment and obligation of our journal of record. But the sad truth is that the Times’ editors no longer can be counted on to do that. The cover-up on illegal spying was not just an accident – an unfortunate misstep. Let us recall the paper’s position on the Bush/Obama line on State Secrets whereby they have claimed that they can short circuit any judicial process by arbitrarily declaring that a continuation of the judicial process would endanger American security. The Times never has frontally attacked this Executive power grab. Let us recall their equivocation on Guantanamo military commissions. Let us recall their silence on the Obama claim to a right to kill United States citizens abroad if in the judgment by some anonymous party using anonymous criteria he is deemed a serious risk to American lives. Let us recall similar silence on the abuse in Kuwait a couple of weeks back of an American citizen by U.S. officials that included his being given over to Kuwaiti authorities for torture.
Now comes the kicker – the Wikileaks affair. This one tears off the veil of the grand lady of American journalism and exposes the Times editors’ current self-serving philosophy. First, the facts. The New York Times was one of five newspapers around the world that chose to publish official United States documents labeled ‘Secret’ in three separate tranches: those on Iraq, those on Afghanistan and the latest trove covering a broad range of State Department diplomatic traffic. It did so voluntarily in recognition of an acknowledged public interest to inform the American people of what its government has been doing. And for the prestige. This action is no different in kind from publication in 1971 of the historic Pentagon Papers pilfered by Daniel Ellsberg.
This last release by Wikileaks has provoked howls of outrage from the Obama administration and Congress. Mr. Julian Assange quickly became the target of a Justice Department campaign to apprehend, indict and imprison him. To this end, the full resources of the United States government have been deployed. Toward this end, Pvt Bradley Manning, who leaked all three batches of documents, has been held in horrific conditions bordering on torture so as both to deter others and now to squeeze from him under duress admissions that could be used to convict Assange of something or other. It is revealed that the Obama people are eager to find a charge beyond the mere receipt and distribution of documents criminally acquired since that would point them directly at the Times which has far more power, status and resources for legal defense than does Mr. Assange. One would have expected the Times’ editors to align themselves with Assange on all matters having to do with publication of the documents, to which they are accessories, and to have condemned the Obama witch hunt. Instead they have maintained complete silence while slanting the paper’s news coverage and op-eds in favor of Assange’s accusers.
Now that silence in broken. Not in defense of Aassange but in denunciation of him. The method is oblique: first interviews by Times’ editors with the German authors, Holger Stark and Marcel Rosenbach, of a book on the subject. Not yet translated, a few excerpts appeared Friday in the International Edition of Der Spiegel in English. The source is none other than Executive Editor William Keller. The quotes also figure prominently in Sunday’s Magazine article.
Here is what Keller has to say:
1. In his preface to the book, Keller describes a stormy relationship with WikiLeaks founder Assange, comparing the Australian to a character straight out of a Stieg Larsson thriller, “a man who could figure either as a hero or villain.” Q: why did the Times’ editors choose to publish sensitive material from a possible ‘Villain?’ Didn’t Mr. Keller et al taken sides when they first decided to publish the Wikileaks material? How does Keller define ‘Villain,’ as the White House does? Q. Could not one characterize Daniel Ellsberg as a ‘villain?’ Is Keller writing pop history or explaining a major act of journalism by the Times? Will Bill Keller next appear on the Oprah show to plug his tell-all memoir?
2. The Times never saw Assange as a “source,” instead viewing him as a man who “clearly had his agenda,” and was not a “partner or collaborator.” Q: if Assange was not the proximate “source” of the material that gained the Times readers and a lucrative book deal, who was? Q: Are the only valid sources those that clearly do not “have an agenda” – like Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby – Ms Miller’s sources? Q: why so keen to deny Assange was in any sense a “partner and collaborator” other than to protect the Times rear while delivering Assange to the Justice Department without fear of collateral damage on 43rd street?
3. Keller goes on to describe Assange as being “elusive, manipulative and volatile.” Q; so what? Are the Times’ editors debutantes in these dealings? Or is this part of the softening up process for making the sell-out of Assange more palatable? Q. Does the Times only accept revelatory material from ‘non-sources’ whose sole, altruistic motive is to add to the paper’s collection of Pulitzers?
4. Keller does not mention the slash and burn character assassination of Assange by John Burns that appeared on the front page the very day after the latest Wikileaks story. Is this Mr. Keller’s idea of fairness to readers and to Assange? to a mutually interested professional relationship? How would Mr. Keller have reacted to a press release from Wikileaks that spotlighted his, and the Times’ dubious ethics over the past 9 years?
5. Keller: in the end, the Australian wanted to exclude the newspaper from publishing any further WikiLeaks documents in the future. Q: is that the really big item because it touches the profitability of a corporation whose Sunday Magazine recently has featured Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter in flattering pieces that were an obvious bid to boost circulation? A famed newspaper that now is just another conglomerate that invests in the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool soccer club, the FITBIT Tracker, and an on-line shoppers service – all designed for “diversifying our revenue streams.”
6. The title of Keller’s article refers to Assange as “The Boy.” A highlighted passage likens him to a “bag lady” who “smelled.” Grotesque colored caricatures of Assange illustrate the text.
For evidence of the sorry state of honesty and integrity in American public life, one need go no further than the New New York Times. As for Classic New York Times – R.I.P.
MICHAEL BRENNER is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.