Julian Assange is a Sideshow; the Documents Should Take Center Stage

Sometimes, we really should pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Sometimes, the man behind the curtain gets paraded before us in hopes of distracting us from whatever the hell should be in the glare of the spotlight.

The mainstream media focus* all of our attention on Julian Assange, speculating wildly on the voracity of sexual assault accusations and the possibility of ulterior extradition motives for the leveling of said charges. The mainstream media happily grouse about the mansion in which he gets to live while awaiting further decisions of the court. The mainstream media love to tell whatever story is easiest to tell, easiest to show outrage about, easiest to use in riling the ire of the viewing, listening and reading public.

If the people who work in the mainstream media were doing their job, though, they would be using this time to go through all of those documents released through WikiLeaks, Assange's website. They would be airing and printing the material that is now available to them, material they should have been striving to uncover on their own. The documents are where the real stories lie, not the court case that will decide one man's fate.

Those documents reveal that much more goes on behind the scenes in diplomatic circles than name-calling and back-biting. Apparently, governments make it common practice to deceive those they govern. They conspire with one another to deceive entire populations as to who is responsible for military attacks, to disguise power plays at the leadership level and to arrange and conceal exchanges of both goods and live fire. People who, when it suits their political motives loudly proclaim that sunlight is the best cleanser, suddenly demand that the shades be pulled tightly closed, lest national security be undone by the revelation of their actions.

If we lived proudly under a totalitarian regime, this might reek slightly less of sheer hypocrisy. Given that we think of ourselves as a democratic republic, though, the very idea stinks to the top of the domed rotundas. A democracy depends on a well-informed public choosing leaders and representatives. If those leaders and representatives feel free to deceive the electorate or simply to keep them in the dark as to what actions are taken on their behalf, the electorate cannot properly choose its leadership. To make well-informed decisions, one must, by definition, have information.

Now, we point at Julian Assange and speculate as to whether he is getting what he deserves under house arrest in a very nice house. This fuels outrage and feels like reportage because it allows for on-air discussions with legal analysts and puts journalists beyond the confines of the studio, on the lawn of the man's manse, but it does nothing to better inform the public.

This is how disinformation works in the modern age. It disguises itself as human interest stories or it creates a riveting sideshow to misdirect our attention. Perhaps you don't believe me. Let me give you an example.

A couple of years ago, John Kerry spoke at the University of Florida. A young man was given a microphone to ask a question. He had concerns about the idea that Kerry and his political opponent George W. Bush belonged to the same secret fraternal society and wanted to know if this explained why Kerry had so readily conceded when the electoral results were inconclusive. Before he could finish his question he was assaulted
by police and put under arrest. He was dragged physically from the room while asking what he had done that was worthy of arrest. All he had done was ask a question. He had posed no threat. He had launched no attack. He had asked a question. For his college-appropriate inquisitive nature, he was beaten, dragged away and shot with a taser.

Almost nobody remembers any details of this event, save one. We all remember the young man's final words just before he was shocked into submission. "Don't tase me, bro!" Those last moments of the encounter were shown repeatedly on television. The young man appeared again and again pleading, "Don't tase me, bro!" and then the news anchors chuckled and joshed, repeating the words as the student fell to the electrical charge fired through his body. "Don't tase me, bro'," became as meaningless a punchline refrain as "where's the beef?" The young man's pain became entertainment of the sort seen in America's Funniest Hit In The Testes By An Errant Baseball Videos.

The sideshow of infotainment distracted us from an horrific stifling of free speech that had taken place in a public forum with cameras rolling. The young man became the victim of our collective sadistic voyeurism; any public airing of the question he had about back-room deals and secrets shared between public opponents was forgotten. With the question edited from the start of the tape, there was certainly no need to do any investigative journalism into the answers to the question.

Sure, it may be entertaining to show footage of the lush lawns before a mansion and complain that an accused rapist who has revealed secret documents is allowed to live there while awaiting a court date. Outrage keeps people watching and repetition of the salacious accusations holds them riveted. And, yes, millions of pages of documents may be boring to sift through. But you can bet your well-entertained ass that somewhere in all that text, many more bits of valuable information await discovery and disclosure. If there were nothing of interest in there, why would the men behind the cameras be so insistent that we should be looking at the man behind the curtain and not at the material that man brought to light?

* "Media" is plural, It refers to the delivery mechanisms of information such as newspapers, television, radio, the internet and so on. Each of these is a medium -- the singular. Only because of monopolization and lazy homogeneity of our information sources have we come to think of "the media" as a singular, monolithic entity. This strikes me as a dangerous trend and one worthy of a whole other article which I will have to write at another time.