Monday, October 25, 2010

When Dirt Is Dug Up, Muddy the Waters

Julian Assange is what he is because the American media are not what they should be.

Rather than cleaning up their own act, however, American journalists have become willing accomplices in the establishment's predictable response to Assange's WikiLeaks revelations.  They are attacking his character.

CNN arranged an interview with Assange ostensibly to talk about the content of the thousands of secret documents WikiLeaks acquired and made public about the Iraq war. But the questioning prompted Assange to ask, "Do you want to talk about deaths of 104,000 people or my personal life?"  When the personal questions persisted, he walked out of the interview.  This act, declared Howard Kurtz, the media's foremost apologist from his pulpits at the Washington Post and CNN, proved that Assange is "delusional."

Indeed, "delusional" seems to be the adjective of choice in the orchestrated attacks on Assange.  John Burns, a darling of the Pentagon, gave it a workout in his hatchet job on Assange that the New York Times felt compelled to give equal prominence with its report on the actual content of the leaked documents.  This is what the media today call "balance."

I worked with the Times's late Tad Szulc  when he obtained a series of secret documents revealing illegal arms shipments by the U.S. government to countries to which such shipments were banned by law.  The newspaper did not feel compelled at that time to publish side-by-side with Tad's disclosures an innuendo-packed account of his sex life or his racetrack associates.

Gene Roberts, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, hailed his multiple Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, Don Barlett and Jim Steele, as "document reporters."  Their work was never accompanied, with equal prominence, by sidebars quoting unnamed sources about shady allegations of Barlett's personal life in Akron or Steele's college romances.

I don't know if Assange was set up by his enemies for the rape allegations against him that are still under investigation in Sweden, but I do know that such tactics are almost as old as the sex act itself. More than half a century ago an upstart coach in another state snatched three prized football recruits from Ohio, where the imperious Woodrow Wilson Hayes was the supreme dictator of the Ohio State University football program.  Not only that, but the upstart coach, with all three of his Ohio recruits playing prime roles, upset a heavily favored Ohio State team.  The very next year, three of the upstart's best players were suspended on charges of rape and sexual assault brought by two young women.  Only later was it revealed -- by a "document reporter" -- that the women who filed the charges had themselves been accused of prostitution in, of all places, Columbus, OH, home of the Buckeyes.

The last really big release of war documents the government didn't want  us to see was the Pentagon Papers, given to my friend and colleague Neil Sheehan by the whistle-blower, Dan Ellsberg.  Neil made the Nixon enemies list; Nixon sent the plumbers after Ellsberg, raiding his psychiatrists' office to dig up dirt.  Ellsberg offered the documents to Sheehan not because of Neil's exemplary personal life, but because he had demonstrated the highest integrity in his reporting from Vietnam. Would that, say, Burns had demonstrated such independence from the generals' handouts in his reporting on Iraq.

I know of no law that requires a digger after important  documents to be a candidate for canonization.  In fact, one of the first, best "document reporters" I ever worked with would have had great difficulty trying to defend his personal life in light of the conventional mores of those times.  But his documents were real and their disclosure put some criminals in jail.

The important side issue about Julian Assange isn't who went to bed with him, under what circumstances, or whether he's a pleasant  fellow to work with.  The main issue is the content of the documents he makes public; the important side issue is why in the hell the media aren't digging them up themselves.

These things are documents, not delusions.


  1. this post is even more fantastic than usual.

  2. Thanks for saying things that we all need to scream from the rooftop. I commented, along with many others, on Burns' hatchet job. As much as I love the Times, when I read something like that piece on Mr. Wikileaks, I wonder what the motive is, what mischief the writer and Times can stir up, how the unsuspecting readers manipulated, on and on. I have resisted giving any money to candidates in this corrupt political system, but if I knew how to do so, I'd send money to help support Mr. Wikileaks.

    Dr. Louise F. Montgomery, Professor Emeritus
    University of Arkansas Journalism.

  3. Great post. I think an essential part of the motivation for such hatchet jobs is basic but unacknowledged jealousy. Assange is doing investigative work on a grand scale, and the current members of the Fourth Estate feel they raise themselves up by taking him down a notch or two. Childish and despicable.