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Julian Assange and the Fate of Journalism

Photograph Source Jeanne Menjoulet | CC BY 2.0

Julian Assange is the Australian founder of Wikileaks—a website dedicated to the public’s right to know what governments and other powerful organizations are doing. Wikileaks pursues this goal by posting revelatory documents, often acquired unofficially, that bring to light the criminal behavior that results in wars and other man-made disasters. Because Wikileaks’ very existence encourages “leaks,” government officials fear the website, and particularly dislike Julian Assange.

Essentially, Wikileaks functions as a wholesale supplier of evidence. Having identified alleged official misconduct, Wikileaks seeks to acquire and make public overwhelming amounts of evidence—sometimes hundreds of thousands of documents at a time—which journalists and other interested parties can draw upon. And since the individuals and organizations being investigated are ones ultimately responsible to the public, such a role as wholesale supplier of evidence can be seen as a public service.

Unfortunately, that is not how most government officials see the situation. They assert that government cannot be successful unless aspects of its behavior are conducted in secret. The fact that those aspects in question thereby lose any accountable connection to the public is discounted. The assumption here is that most citizens simply trust their governments to act in their interests, including when they act clandestinely. Historically, such trust is dangerously naive. Often government officials, even the democratic ones, feel no obligation to their citizens in general, but rather only to special interests.

One reason for this is that large and bureaucratic institutions that last for any length of time have the tendency to become stand-alone institutions—ones with their own self-referencing cultures, loyalty to which comes to override any responsibility to outside groups other than those with particular shared interests. In other words, long-lasting institutions/bureaucracies take on a life of their own.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that many governments look upon Wikileaks as a threat to institutional well-being. And so, in an effort to cripple Wikileaks and have their revenge on Assange, the United States and the United Kingdom (UK), with the cooperation of Sweden, first sought to frame Assange (2010) on a sexual assault charge. This having failed, Assange was still left liable for jumping bail in the UK in order to avoid seizure and deportation to the U.S., where he would certainly be put on trial for revealing secrets. He escaped to the Ecuadorian embassy in London (2012), where he was given asylum. As of this writing, he is still there. However, a recent change in government in Quito has led to discussions between Ecuador and the UK that may well lead to Assange’s eviction from the embassy.

The Ideals of Journalism

Some of the anger over Assange’s fate has been directed at the journalistic profession which he has sought to serve. After all, Assange has ardently supported the notions of free speech, free press and the public’s right to know. Nonetheless, as the documentary filmmaker John Pilger, a supporter of Assange, has noted, “There has been no pressure [in support of Assange] from media in the United States, Britain, Australia or pretty much anywhere except in [media] programs … outside the mainstream. … The persecution of this man has been something that should horrify all free-thinking people.” He is quite right. Unfortunately, there never have been many brave free-thinkers about, so no one should be surprised at Assange’s poor prospects.

This brings up the difference between the ideals of the journalistic profession and the reality within which it operates. There is a model of journalism that presents it as a pillar of democracy. The journalist is a tough and persistent person who digs up facts, asks hard questions and explains the truth to his or her readers/viewers. Few seem to have noticed that, to the extent that this picture is accurate, the ideal model has alienated those readers/viewers who cannot tell the difference between “the truth” and their own opinions. Recently, this alienation has opened the entire media industry to the charge that it is really the “enemy of the people” because it peddles “fake news”—that is, news that belies one’s opinions.

To bring the idealistic journalist in line with real public expectations, editors put pressure on media workers to compromise their professional ideals. The result is most often manipulated reports aimed at fitting the particular outlook of the particular media operation’s target audience. Thus, it is simply wrong to think that, on the average, those who investigate, do research, write about things, and report through the various media are any braver or, ultimately, any more principled than the rest of the population. As Julien Benda showed us in his 1928 book The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, while it is in fact the job of those who research and report to remain independent of the ideologies and biases of both their community and their government, the truth is that most often these people end up serving power. This is particularly the case when there is an atmosphere of patriotic fervor, or just plain pressure from sources that can hurt one’s career. At that point you will find that bravery does exist but it is the exception and not the rule—and the brave will, more often than not, stand alone.

That is what is happening in the case of Julian Assange. Many American news outlets are willing to selectively use the documented evidence made available by Wikileaks. To do so is to draw on what the website has placed in the public domain. But they will not stand up and publicly defend the “whistleblower” who makes the information public. I imagine publishers, editors, and media moguls, and the vast majority of those they employ, just don’t have the courage to support the individual who breaks some unprincipled law or regulation designed to enforce silence in relation to official crimes and hypocrisy.

A Shared Problem

The United States is certainly not the only country facing this dilemma. To one extent or another this is a shared problem in all those lands claiming to have a free press. For example, a similar problem has long existed in Israel. Here one finds a whole ethnicity whose journalists are open to persecution.

Take the case of Omar Nazzal, a member of the board of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate. In a 10 August 2016 report appearing in the on-line blog +972, and entitled “Israeli journalists silent as their Palestinian colleagues are jailed,” we are told that Nazzal was taken into custody by Israeli forces in April 2016, without charges. Like Assange, there has been an attempt, after the fact, to claim that Nazzal is a criminal. The Shin Bet, one of those Israeli security forces that only the naive or venal take at face value, claims that he is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which they consider to be a terrorist organization. No proof of this charge has been publicly presented (Shin Bet claims the “proof” is secret) and Nazzal denies any affiliation. As it turns out, the real reason he was arrested somewhat parallels Assange’s activity. At the time of his seizure, Nazzal was on his way to Sarajevo for a meeting of the European Federation of Journalists. No doubt, the Israelis did not want him telling true, documentable, stories to an organization of European journalists. Most Israeli Jewish journalists, like their American counterparts, remain silent. So do their respective publics.

One might ask just how seriously “the public” wants a media that tells them “the truth.” The most watched cable news channel in the U.S. is Fox News, a media ally of Donald Trump that has no demonstrable interest in objective facts. It is more likely that Americans (and others) chose their news outlets on the basis of which one most often tells them what they want to hear—in other words, the search for “accurate” reporting is really driven by a desire for confirmation bias.

Under these circumstances it is easy to understand why a for-profit media industry need not be beholden to the general citizenry or any ideal of supplying fact-based news. This situation puts truth tellers like Assange, and in the case of Israel, Omar Nazzal, in a bad position. They will have their defenders but they will be outside the mainstream—because truth itself is also outside the mainstream. That is their predicament, and ours as well.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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