Sunday, January 16, 2011

Out of the Phone Booth and into Cyberspace

Going to lunch with the late Tad Szulc was better than going to the theater.

Tad and I were colleagues at the New York Times Washington Bureau during the Nixon administration.  Between them, Tad and the late Pete Willett of United Press (who is another story entirely) knew every single person in the world who was in any way worth knowing, or so it seemed.

Tad was born in Czechoslovakia, lived all over the world, and spoke half a dozen or more languages fluently.  Frequently we would lunch at a restaurant favored by the embassy crowd.  Tad would scan the room, taking note of who was lunching with whom, then signal the Captain to take us to his personal table.  From there he would decide which tables to visit between lunch and desert.  Like a devoted puppy, I would follow him on his table-hopping rounds, watching him converse in most of the languages he commanded, with diplomats whose names were the fodder of headlines all over the world.  Over desert, he'd tell me what he'd heard and we'd talk about the stories to pursue.

We'd also lunch at out-of-the-way little restaurants that only Tad and a select few other citizens of the world knew about, where the food was recherch√© and the lighting was dim.  En route to one of these one day, Tad paused outside a downtown DC drugstore and said, "Wait here just a moment for me, please, Tomas, I've got to go in and pick up some secret documents."  He entered the store, chose a certain phone booth, went inside and emerged with a manilla envelope, whose contents he scrutinized in the dim light of the restaurant.

It contained the bill of lading of a ship called the Padma and it gave Tad a worldwide scoop on how the CIA was secretly violating our own government's ban by shipping illegal arms to Pakistan.

Tad was a master of a commonplace journalistic skill back in those days: cultivation of sources who could provide the classified documents that penetrated the veil of secrecy behind which governments like to operate.  It was because that skill is so scarce among today's so-called journalists, who see themselves as stenographers for government propagandists, that somebody had to begin doing what Julian Assange does.

As our government has intensified its campaign to demonize the founder of WikiLeaks, the stenographers of our mainstream media have willingly turned against a man whose efforts they once supported and now offer him up for sacrifice in the name of national security. 

"Journalistic" agencies like the National Press Club, the Overseas Press Club (whose only redeeming social value is  that it once employed a bartender who made the world's finest martini), and the AP (which has no redeeming social value) have agonized, reassessed and concluded that Assange isn't really a journalist and so is not entitled to the First Amendment protection that real journalists enjoy.

Among the canards these mainstreamers propagate is this:  Assange "recklessly" endangers people and policies by "willy-nilly" (Real Journalist and Stenographer Bob Woodward's phrase) making public certain of the 250,000 secret cables that have produced so many major news stories in the last two months.

What the blood-lusters overlook is the real manner in which the once-secret cables, documents and videos become public.  Assange simply plays the role of whomever left that manilla envelope taped under the seat of the drug store phone booth for Tad Szulc to find.  Assange obtains the documents, and makes them available to a select few prestigious journalistic institutions like our New York Times, the UK's Guardian, Germany's Der Spiegel, etc.  They perform Tad's journalistic function, deciding what to publish, verifying it, checking ancillary facts, providing context, soliciting the usual denials by the usual suspects, etc. Only after the journalists have finished their work and made the material public does WikiLeaks, virtually simultaneously, and with the journalists' redactions and emendings, post the same information on its own site.

And so the very methods by which WikiLeaks material becomes public has been falsified by the mainstreamers who now decry Assange's "treachery."

The question is not and never has been whether Assange is a "journalist."  What he does is an essential part of the process, usually called journalism, by which citizens are given access to information to which they are entitled under the First Amendment.

Back in Tad's day, the Nixon crowd went berserk when one of their secrets got out, putting me and Tad and Neil Sheehan and a bunch of our colleagues on Tricky Dick's infamous "Enemies' List."  As Thomas Paine noted, "Only error, and never truth, shrinks from free inquiry."

Many of the loudest callers for Assange's head to roll are themselves not only non-journalists, but also apologists for corrupt government officials and purveyors of bias and hate. What's really needed is for Americans to become smart enough to quit listening to them.  One way for that to happen is for Americans to have access to the very kinds of information that pass through WikiLeaks and into the public domain.

Another word for it is "truth."

1 comment:

  1. T.W.,
    WOW...My jaw was dropping reading this post. In all the time I have known you and all the stories I have heard from you, this one escaped me. I really enjoyed reading this!

    The issue with truth is...transparency is critical. Unfortunately, most individuals resign to a life where they THINK they are getting what they deserve and want when in reality they are getting what they are told they want (call it training, much what you do with a new pet).

    This equates to fabricated lies. Ignorance is truly bliss…I unfortunately find the more I read and the more I know about things…the worse off I am emotionally and psychologically. In the words of Col. Nathan Jessep in A Few Good Men: “You want the truth, you can’t handle the truth”. I appreciate the slap back into reality, now I’m headed back to ignorance and bliss….