How Free is our Press?
WikiLeaks promises their anonymous, whistle-blowing sources that they will work for “maximum political impact.” Like them or not, they keep their word. The transnational transparency-advocating journalists stormed American and international discourse by publishing secret diplomatic cables. America responded. Some consider WikiLeaks heroic, daring to speak truth to power, and some consider the organization terroristic, threatening to undermine American diplomacy worldwide.
Constitutional lawyer and civil liberties writer Glenn Greenwald, for Salon.com, finds public reactions quite disturbing. Drawing parallels with how major media organizations published misinformation about WMDs in Iraq, he writes that with WikiLeaks, “the government and establishment media are jointly manufacturing and disseminating an endless stream of fear-mongering falsehoods designed to depict them as scary villains threatening the security of the American people and who must therefore be stopped at any cost.”
An extensive study finds instructive and potentially perilous similarities between the way the U.S. government and American news media have responded.
Beginning on November 28, 2010, WikiLeaks and collaborating media outlets began releasing perhaps the organization’s most stunning and divisive document dump yet: a quarter million U.S. State Department and American embassy cables. The files uncloak the diplomatic process both American and foreign while, as the New York Times put it, providing “an unprecedented look at bargaining by embassies, candid views of foreign leaders and assessments of threats.”
Most of the documents chronicle relations and commentary from the last three years, and though the significant and revelatory nature of the cables varies widely, many stand out as new, startling, and in some cases potentially illegal or unethical. Some cables reveal, for instance, that the United States has been secretly bombing suspected terrorists in Yemen, and the Yemeni government has been taking responsibility for the bombings.
Other cables show Chinese government operatives attacked Google’s computer systems, attempting to sabotage that company’s efforts and to break into U.S. government computers. In another, the King of Saudi Arabia, an American ally, urged the U.S. to bomb Iran, hoping to debilitate Iranian nuclear programs. More documents expose American diplomats bargaining Guantanamo Bay prisoners with other countries as leverage. Another indicates Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered U.S. diplomats to spy on and retrieve information about several U.N. officials.
These and many other revelations are quite alarming, yet they may be just the beginning. Of the 250,000 diplomatic documents, fewer than 2,000 have been published thus far, with media outlets such as The Guardian in England, El Pais in Spain, and the New York Times collaborating to review the files, redact names of innocents, and write up explanatory articles as they publish them.
Given the controversial classification of the documents, the startling realization that the Internet can expose this much information, and the scope of the trove, an immense reaction of some kind should have been expected of the government and the media. However, it may be surprising to note fascinating and illuminating similarities among the reaction of the U.S. government, that of many mainstream American media outlets, and, curiously, the actions of privately owned companies.
Government officials and politicians have been among the leading voices calling for direct action against WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange. The most vocal, Sen. Joe Lieberman, immediately called for criminal charges against the organization, saying he urges the government “both on its own and in cooperation with other responsible governments around the world — to use all legal means necessary to shut down WikiLeaks,” whose activities, he says, “represent a shared threat to collective international security.”
Countless more public officials have come out in opposition. Former presidential candidate and Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, on Facebook, called Assange “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” and criticized the Obama administration’s inaction, asking, “Why was [Assange] not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”
Rep. Peter King encouraged Obama to label WikiLeaks a “foreign terrorist organization” because “they are engaged in terrorist activity. What they’re doing is clearly aiding and abetting terrorist groups.” Rep. Candice Miller “fully supports” Rep. King’s statement. Calling the publishing “illegal,” Rep. Miller continues, “Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are criminals whose actions support terrorists and criminal regimes around the world. It is now long past time for our government to shut WikiLeaks down.”
Rep. Dan Lungren, in a Congress-blog post, solicited the Justice Department to “immediately seek an arrest warrant for Assange and take whatever steps are necessary to bring about his extradition to the United States, and demanded, “espionage charges should be brought against him as well as a prosecution for the unauthorized release of classified information.”
Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote in the Washington Post that Assange is in “likely violation of the Espionage Act and arguably is providing material support for terrorism.”
Not every American politician has been critical of WikiLeaks: Rep. Ron Paul and Rep. John Conyers are in support. Rep. Paul gave an ardent speech on the House floor, defending WikiLeaks and the media outlets that published the documents, saying, “In a free society we’re supposed to know the truth,” and continuing, “In a society where truth becomes treason, then we’re in big trouble. And now, people who are revealing the truth are getting into trouble for it.” He closed his remarks with several questions for Congress including, “If Assange can be convicted of a crime for publishing information that he did not steal, what does this say about the future of the First Amendment and the independence of the internet?”
Less supportive of WikiLeaks but equally skeptical of the major public uproar, Rep. Conyers made a Congressional plea: “let us not legislate in a climate of fear or prejudice. For, in such an atmosphere, it is our constitutional freedoms and our cherished civil rights that are the first to be sacrificed in the false service of our national security.”
But these representatives find little company. Both Sen. Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden have called Assange a “high-tech terrorist,” and President Obama called WikiLeaks’ actions “deplorable,” but has been relatively silent on the issue otherwise.
Despite these many pubic outcries, the Obama administration has taken little official action so far, though some is underway. State Department legal advisor Harold Koh sent a letter to WikiLeaks just before they planned to publish, indicating the U.S. refused to help WikiLeaks redact innocent names and requesting the site return the documents.
Sen. Lieberman introduced the SHIELD Act, an amendment to the 1917 Espionage Act that would prohibit the publishing – not merely the leaking – of classified information. This would, of course, indict not only WikiLeaks but also the New York Times, The Guardian, and every other media outlet that published the diplomatic cables. As legal analyst Benajmin Wittes notes, the Espionage Act would then cover any and all “news stories, all blogging on them, and all dinner party conversations about their contents.” He added, “taken at its word, the Espionage Act makes felons of us all.” And indeed, on Fox News, Sen. Lieberman made clear that he believes the New York Times should be investigated for unethical or illegal behavior. Attempts were made to contact editors at Time and the Philadelphia Inquirer for their take on the matter, but no response was given. I asked various editors at the New York Times to respond, and Danielle Rhoades Ha, the New York Times’ Director of Communications, had a terse, unequivocal reply: “We believe that our decision to publish was responsible, legal, and important to a democratic society.”
Yet many other mainstream media figures have followed Lieberman’s thinking. Joe Klein, writing for Time magazine, said that “if a single foreign national is rounded up and put in jail because of a leaked cable, this entire, anarchic exercise in ‘freedom’ stands as a human disaster. Assange is a criminal. He’s the one who should be in jail.”
Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for the National Review Online, in the Chicago Tribune wrote an article titled, “Why is Assange Still Alive?” in which he expresses his surprise that the WikiLeaks founder has not been assassinated already.
Former presidential candidate and Fox talk show host Mike Huckabee, though not calling for action on WikiLeaks or Assange personally, thinks for whomever leaked the documents originally (alleged to be Pfc. Bradley Manning), “anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.” Requests for further comment from Huckabee and Klein were not returned.
The Washington Times writer Jeffrey Kuhner, in a post entitled “Assassinate Assange?” makes similar claims about WikiLeaks’ efforts to aid and abet terrorists, but then takes it further, calling Assange “an anti-American radical who wants to see the United States defeated by its Islamic fascist enemies,” and who is “as much a threat as Osama bin Laden.” He believes the “damage has been done; people have died – and will die because of the actions” of Assange.
Bob Beckel, host of Fox’s “Follow the Money,” calls for killing Assange because “A dead man can’t leak stuff.” He continued, attacking, “This guy’s a traitor, he’s treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States. And I’m not for the death penalty, so…there’s only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a bitch.”
Countless more journalists make quite similar claims. Cable news headlines wondered if Assange is a terrorist, if people have died from the leak, and if America could legally retaliate.
The problem, though, is a lack of evidence. Klein, for instance, speaks merely hypothetically, and Kuhner names no one who actually died as a result. All of these media figures decry WikiLeaks and Assange as terroristic dangers, despite the fact that the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indisputably downplayed widespread concerns that the leaked cables actually posed a threat to American national security. He called the concerns “significantly overwrought,” adding “The fact is, governments deal with the U.S. because it’s in their interest — not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. … Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
Yet public distress persists. It appears that the only proof or reasoning these media figures are basing their claims on are simply similar claims made first by government and public officials, instead of any verifiable, empirical facts.
It’s especially strange to see so many journalists denouncing WikiLeaks for publishing leaked documents, when the very nature of investigative journalism involves seeking high-end sources to provide inside information. What WikiLeaks has done appears comparable to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, or to Bob Woodward taking hints and information from Deep Throat in the basement of a parking garage, albeit on a much, much larger scale and involving more comprehensive information.
Furthermore, WikiLeaks is the recipient of these documents, not the leaker. Instead of indiscriminately publishing the entire trove of documents, as many claim they have done, WikiLeaks only publishes what other major media outlets publish as well. Logic follows, then, that if we prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act, we must do the same to the New York Times, The Guardian, and El Pais. And if we created laws banning the publishing of classified information, we would drastically alter the future and nature of investigative journalism as a whole. As George Packer writes for the New Yorker, “discerning the legal difference between what WikiLeaks did and what news organizations do is difficult and would set a terrible precedent.”
So why do these media figures and journalists (many of them investigative themselves) so adamantly demand action against WikiLeaks? Steve Rendall, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s (FAIR) senior analyst, attributes this phenomenon to what he calls America’s “Palace Court press corps,” and draws comparisons between American media with Saudi Arabia’s press corps, “which basically strives not to offend the King and is more or less servile.” That dynamic, he says, is “fairly similar to the U.S., but there if you aren’t servile you can get yourself in a lot of trouble,” whereas “in the U.S. we don’t have that excuse.” This, he says, “is why we have the First Amendment – we don’t have the First Amendment so you can publish innocuous, benign things.” He explains, “We have the First Amendment because it can damage governments, because journalism can hurt people. It can hurt powerful people. It can undermine elites. That’s why you have the First Amendment. Because you don’t need protection from the powerless.”
Rendall discussed what he called the “military-industrial-media complex.” He said many American major newspapers are “part of an establishment,” and “the media part of that establishment is funded by advertising. Those advertisers are plugged in to the establishment, often large political contributors. Many of them are military contractors, or otherwise engaged in business with the government,” so it becomes “part of [the media’s] job to make the United States look good.”
The government has had a similar effect on private companies. PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, and now Bank of America have all decided to freeze accounts with WikiLeaks or prevent supporters from donating to the organization through them. Amazon.com stopped hosting WikiLeaks.org on their web host server. Why? They appear to be acting by request, either direct or indirect, of the U.S. government. PayPal representative Osama Bedier incited a minor uproar when he suggested he had been asked personally by the State Department to freeze WikiLeaks’ account. He later recanted that story, saying PayPal froze the account in response to public officials suggesting, though not to PayPal directly, that WikiLeaks has acted illegally.
In an email exchange with Visa’s media Webmaster, I asked why Visa had closed WikiLeaks’ account (which they were not legally required to do). The reply was redolent of scripted formalities: “With regards to Visa’s position on WikiLeaks, Visa has temporarily suspended Visa payment acceptance on WikiLeaks’ website pending investigation into whether it contravenes Visa operating rules, including compliance with local laws in the markets where we operate.” When pressed for information on exactly who was conducting the investigation, and why, Visa declined to comment.
In a brief statement, PayPal’s spokesperson first merely said that “Wikileaks was restricted by PayPal” before forwarding my call to a PR representative, who said he could not comment on the future or current status of WikiLeaks’ account, but said that an explanation could be found online. The site informs that WikiLeaks’ “account was again reviewed last week after the U.S. Department of State publicized a letter to WikiLeaks on November 27, stating that WikiLeaks may be in possession of documents that were provided in violation of U.S. law. PayPal was not contacted by any government organization in the U.S. or abroad.” However, the “decision was based on a belief that the WikiLeaks website was encouraging sources to release classified material, which is likely a violation of law by the source.” The post only speculates that this could be illegal, and does not mention which law WikiLeaks may have broken.
Amazon.com’s spokesperson said he could not speak on the matter, but said that an email to the CEO would be addressed immediately. Amazon.com has declined to comment entirely.
It’s truly bizarre and revealing to see the effect the U.S. government has on both the mainstream American media and these private companies, without any legal action whatsoever. As Glenn Greenwald writes, “leading media figures and government officials are completely indistinguishable in what they think, say and do,” in response to the WikiLeaks controversy.
So now, as Julian Assange faces potential extradition to the United States, and as the U.S. government considers legal action against WikiLeaks, we are at a crossroads in American journalism. As a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder signed by the entire staff of Columbia University’s Journalism School writes, “any prosecution of Wikileaks’ staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity.” Yet major American media outlets appear unconcerned, or unthreatened. Striking similarities between reactions to WikiLeaks from mainstream journalists and U.S. politicians reveal what Greenwald calls “an instinctively servile loyalty to power.”
Perhaps if Assange is tried, Lieberman and the rest of the government will actually attempt to prosecute the New York Times for the same crimes. Reaction to that would be quite a sight to see.
At Storify.com, my compilation of first few days of media coverage:
PDF of Harold Koh letter to WikiLeaks:
Columbia Journalism School letter to Obama and Holder:
Full transcript of my interview with FAIR on WikiLeaks: