The Media Assault Against Assange

By Jordan Heide

“We help you safely get the truth out.”

Boldly printed across its homepage, this proclamation summarizes the intentions of WikiLeaks, the infamous database currently under immense scrutiny for disclosing classified documents of multiple political institutions around the world.

What founder Julian Assange fails to mention is that once the truth is out, safety can no longer be assured.

WikiLeaks strives to provide a secure medium for conscientious whistle-blowers attempting to expose the corrupt actions of their respective governments and corporations. The database contains over 1.5 million documents from numerous world powers, including France, Iran, Australia, Germany, and Britain.

“We are of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and institutions. We aim for maximum political impact,” the site states.

The potential of WikiLeaks was realized when Private First Class Bradley Manning of the United States Army submitted videos of airstrikes conducted in Baghdad and Granai, along with 260,000 other diplomatic cables. The apathetic disposition of the pilots responsible for the airstrikes shocked Americans and international citizens alike. The airstrike in Baghdad (referred to by WikiLeaks as the “Collateral Murder”) resulted in the death of 18 unarmed civilians.

The diplomatic cables revealed egregious atrocities committed by the U.S. government, including but not limited to the coaxing of foreign allies to house Guantanamo prisoners, American diplomats’ unorthodox involvement in the sale of jetliners on the global market, and the United States’ participation in an international conspiracy to ignore Cuba’s countless human rights violations. Most notorious was the revelation that the U.S. Army had disregarded claims of torture made by Iraqi authorities.

Yet, while the content of these cables has evoked outrage, much attention has been devoted to the legality of the leaks. Assange and Manning have been criticized for exposing the corruption of imperious governments and threatening national security; Manning has even been detained by the U.S. Army and could face up to 52 years in prison simply for releasing classified information. Assange currently resides in London, attempting to dodge extradition to Sweden for charges against him regarding sexual misconduct (accusations which Assange vehemently denies).

In an interview with TED’s Chris Anderson, Assange defended WikiLeaks against claims from Time Magazine that he was “undermining the Obama Administration's efforts to curb government secrecy.” Assange responded to this accusation, stating that “Capable, generous men do not create victims; they nurture victims. [One way] of nurturing victims is to police perpetrators of crime; I consider WikiLeaks to be a means to that end.”

Despite his noble intentions, Assange has been demonized in the media. William Kristol from The Weekly Standard urged U.S. government officials to “use their various assets to harass, snatch or neutralize Julian Assange and his collaborators.” Yet it is The New York Times that has been particularly critical of Assange.

Since Assange’s leap to fame, The New York Times has devoutly captured his every move. However, in attempts to achieve neutrality and present a candid portrayal of Assange, The Times has unremittingly attacked aspects of Assange’s character that are unrelated to his role in the WikiLeaks scandal. In one of its most disparaging articles, The Times described Assange as “the flamboyant founder of WikiLeaks,” including in its description the irrelevant fact that he currently resides on “a supporter's 600-acre estate outside London where he has negotiated $1.7 million in book deals and regularly issues defiant statements about the antisecrecy group's plans.”

Assange has been tirelessly criticized for possessing a cavalier, arrogant demeanor, exaggerated to such an extent that one would be inclined to believe that Assange is as menacing as an insolent dictator. Even descriptions of Assange’s appearance assume a disapproving tone:

“He’s tall — probably 6-foot-2 or 6-3 — and lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention. He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.”

The New York Times has made little effort to disguise its contempt for Assange, portraying him as “smart and well educated, extremely adept technologically but arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.” Although acknowledging of Assange’s technical brilliance, The New York Times abrasively labels him as “conspiratorial and oddly credulous,” insinuating that he is both manipulative and perhaps a bit ignorant. However, The Times fails to provide evidence supporting these claims or establish a connection between Assange’s boastful personality and the legitimacy of the WikiLeaks documents.

Bill Keller, New York Times Columnist and author of Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy: Complete and Expanded Coverage from The New York Times, claimed that Assange behaved “like a fugitive, changing crash pads, e-mail addresses and cellphones frequently” during their many lucrative meetings prior to the release of the data that Pfc. Manning submitted. Keller even resorted to pejoratively describing Assange as an “office geek” when Assange offered up his technical savvy to Keller and a few fellow reporters who were attempting to dissect the WikiLeaks database. Keller provides no reason to distrust Assange other than the fact that he simply feels uneasy around the notorious hacker.

Newsweek’s Ben Adler (a critic of Assange’s work himself) believes that legal troubles and self-interest are the source of The Times’ disdain; Senator Joe Lieberman and Ex-Attorney General Michael Mukasey are attempting to use the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute The New York Times for publishing unauthorized content. The Act has never been used against a publisher before and The Times fears that a guilty verdict could severely limit journalist freedoms; as a result, The Times has made a valiant effort to shift the burden onto Assange as so to exonerate itself of any potential reconnaissance charges.

The paradoxicality of The Times’ motives is not lost on the sensible reader; distorting the truth for the sake of preserving integrity undoubtedly seems hypocritical. Is it not the responsibility of the journalist to present the facts objectively and impartially,regardless of personal motive? If indeed The New York Times is attempting to displace its guilt, then it seems as though The Times is posing a greater (and much more direct) threat to the future of journalism than WikiLeaks ever could.