WikiLeaks, Revolution, and the Lost Cojones of American Journalism

Now that the WikiLeaks releases have directly sparked a peoples' uprising in Tunisia, which has inspired another in Egypt, surely one would expect key U.S. news organizations to stand for the right to publish classified materials.
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Now that the WikiLeaks releases about Tunisian corruption have directly sparked a peoples' uprising in Tunisia; now that Egypt is in the throes of pro-democracy protest driven in large measure by WikiLeaks' revelation in the Palestine Papers about US manipulation of Palestine, surely one would expect key U.S. news organizations and journalists to rally prominently to the defense of the right to publish that that site represents. One would expect lead editorials supporting Assange's right to publish from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USAToday, not to mention every major TV outlet. But instead, what we have heard is the deafening sounds of what middle-schoolers call 'crickets' -- that is, an awkward silence. As Nancy Youssef in the McClatchy papers reported recently, most U.S. journalists -- and, even more shamefully, journalists' organizations -- decided, regarding supporting Wikileaks' freedom to publish, to "take a pass."

How on earth could this be? This cravenness represents one of American journalism's darkest hours -- as dark as the depth of the McCarthy era. In terms of the question of the legalities of publishing classified information, most American journalists understand full well that Assange is not the one who committed the crime of illegally obtaining classified material -- that was Bradley Manning, or whomever released the material to the site. So Assange is not the 'hacker' of secrets, as People magazine has mis-identified him; he is of course the publisher, just as any traditional news organization is. He is not Daniel Ellsberg, in the most comparable analogy, the illegal releaser of the classified Pentagon Papers; rather, Assange is analogous to the New York Times, which made the brave and correct decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in the public's interest.

U.S. journalists also know perfectly well that they too traffic in classified material continually -- and many of our most prominent reporters have built lucrative careers doing exactly what Assange is being charged with. Any sophisticated dinner party in media circles in New York or Washington has journalists jauntily showing prospective employers their goods, or trading favors with each other, by disclosing classified information. For we all, in this profession, know that seeking out and handling classified information is what serious journalists DO: their job is to find out the government's secrets in spite of officials who don't want these secrets revealed. American journalists also know that the U.S. government classifies information mostly out of embarrassment, or for expediency, rather than because of true national security concerns (an example is the classification of suspicious deaths in Guantanamo and other US-held jails). The New York Times garnered kudos -- as they should have -- in 2005 with the publication of the SWIFT banking story -- based on leaked classified documents, which makes Bill Kellers' recent essay trying to put distance between his newspaper and WikiLeaks all the more indefensible.

Here is what readers are not being told: We have ALL handled classified information if we are serious American journalists. I am waiting for more than a handful of other American reporters, editors and news organizations to have the courage -- courage that is in abundance in Tahrir Square and on the pages of Al Jazeera, now that we no longer see it on the editorial page of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal -- to stand up and confirm the obvious. For the assault on Assange to be credible, they would have to come arrest us all. Many of Bob Woodward's bestselling books, which have made him America's highest-paid reporter, are based on classified information -- that's why he gets the big bucks. Where are the calls for Woodward's arrest? Indeed Dick Cheney and other highest-level officials in the Bush administration committed the same act as Bradley Manning in this case, when they illegally revealed the classified identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

So why do all these American reporters, who know quite well that they get praise and money for doing what Assange has done, stand in a silence that can only be called cowardly, while a fellow publisher faces threats of extradition, banning, prosecution for spying -- which can incur the death penalty -- and calls for his assassination?

One could say that the reason for the silence has to do with the sexual misconduct charges in Sweden. But any serious journalist in America knows perfectly well that the two issues must not be conflated. The First Amendment applies to rogues and scoundrels. You don't lose your First Amendment rights because of a sleazy personality, or even for having committed a crime. Felons in jail are protected by the First Amendment. Indeed the most famous First Amendment cases, the ones that are supposed to showcase America's strength and moral power, involve the protection of speech most decent people hate.

So again: why have U.S. journalists and editor, as Youssef reported, "shunned" Assange? Youssef reports an almost unbelievably craven American press scenario: The "freedom of the press committee" -- yes, you read that correctly -- of the Overseas Press Club of America in New York City declared him "not one of us." The Associated Press itself won't issue comment about him. And even the National Press Club in Washington made the decision not to speak publicly about the possibility that Assange may be charged with a crime. She notes that it is foreign press organizations that have had to defend him.

One answer for this silence has to do with what happens to the press in a closing society. I warned in 2006 and often since that you don't need a coup to close down America's open society -- you need to simply accomplish a few key goals. One critical task -- number seven -- is to intimidate journalists; this is done, as in any closing society, by creating a situation in which a high-profile reporter is accused of "treason" or of endangering national security through their reporting, and threatened with torture or with a show trial and indefinite detention. History shows that when that happens, you don't need to arrest or threaten any other reporters -- because they immediately start to police and censor themselves, and fall all over themselves attacking the "traitor" as well. That way safety lies, whether the knowledge is conscious or not.

Another motive is revealed in the comment that Assange is "not one of us." U.S. journalism's business model is collapsing; the people who should be out in front defending Assange are facing cut salaries or unemployment because of the medium that Assange represents. These journalists are not willing to concede that Assange is, of course, a publisher, rather than some sort of hybrid terrorist blogger, because of their self-interested prejudices against a medium in which they are not the gatekeepers.

In this, paradoxically, they have become just like the outraged U.S. government officials who are threatening Assange: the American government too is in the position, because of the Internet, of no longer being able to control its secrets, and is lashing out at Assange as it faces a future in which there are no traditional gatekeepers, and all institutions live in glass houses.

It is for this reason that the prosecution of Assange -- and his betrayal by his fellow journalists and publishers in America -- is so almost absurdly futile. Even if they lock Assange up forever, the world of the future is a WikiLeaks world. Trying to extradite and to convict Assange is like trying to convict the first person who dared to install a telephone. The WikiLeaks necessity -- for citizens who are upset at government or private sector abuses of power -- to release documents, is not going away, ever. Egypt is showing us that conclusively: they turn off the news and people create the news on their cellphones. The technology of leaking government secrets globally is not going away either. In five years one can expect that every major institution will have its own version of WikiLeaks -- so shareholders, members of university communities, citizens of governments all over the world, and so on, can read the secrets that are in the public interest that the traditional gatekeepers wish to keep under wraps.

History shows that journalists only protect themselves, when bullied like this, by fighting back -- as a group. And history shows that when a technology and its social change are inevitable, it is better to integrate the way the future will work, into an open society -- rather than trying pointlessly to punish it, in this case by seeking to ship the inevitable future off to Guantanamo Bay.

An earlier version of this post appeared at Project Syndicate.

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