Is Julian Assange worth protecting?

To some, the uber WikiLeaker is a hero. To others, he's just a raging egomaniac whose days of relevance are past.

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Journalism 101

I’d like to address these in order.

First, if I’d wanted to use Assange as linkbait, I would have put his name in the head and the deck where Google News could easily find it, and not at word no. 894. (Though you may rightly conclude that today’s post is a blatant attempt to use Assange as linkbait.)

Second: Almost exactly two years ago, Julian Assange did, in fact, post the entire trove of unredacted cables to WikiLeaks. Granted, he did so after portions of the cables had been posted elsewhere on the Internet. That was the result of a three-way c*******k between Assange (storing them in an encrypted file on Bit Torrent), Guardian reporter David Leigh (for publishing the password to the file in his book), and estranged Assange colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (for allegedly revealing the name of the encrypted file, making it easy to marry it to the now public password).

Posting the whole thing to WikiLeaks made it easier for everyone to find and search the files, however. I thought it was an irresponsible thing to do then, and I still do.

Third: Is Assange a journalist? Let me start by describing what a journalist does. I'm going to use the male pronoun here, so let me first stipulate that there are many many excellent women journalists out there, including my wife.

First, he finds a topic (or beat) and attempts to become a quasi expert. He does this by locating real experts in that field and interviewing them at length. He develops sources within the organizations he's writing about, and persuades them to talk to him, even if that puts their careers (or their lives) in danger. He may also be besieged with requests from people who want him to write about their organizations, 99 percent of which he will have to deflect or ignore.

He must deal with people who are attempting to manipulate his opinions with half truths, people who are lying outright, people who have a clear agenda they're trying to push, and people who have a hidden agenda he must suss out. He must take all the information he has gathered, some of which is likely to be contradictory, synthesize it, and turn it into something readers can understand – on deadline, and to a specific word count. And then do it again the next day, and the day after that, until he retires or dies, whichever comes first.

At the end of a story he ends up with three bodies of knowledge: What he thinks to be true, what he knows to be true, and what he can credibly publish without damaging his sources or otherwise causing harm. If he's doing his job correctly, the last category is always much smaller than the first two.

So, as it turns out, good journalists are also really good at keeping secrets.

Finally, after publication, he must deal with the fall out. People who are PO'd because they were left out of the story, and people who are ticked off that they were included. People who feel they were misrepresented, or those who just didn't agree with the reporter's conclusions. And of course commenters who feel free to place the reporter's position on the evolutionary scale somewhere between the lemur and the sea pig.

And if he screws up – we all do eventually – he does it in public where everyone can see.

There are well-paid people working at mainstream media companies who don't really fit that description; there are bloggers working in obscurity for peanuts who do.

Does Julian Assange fit that description? I don't think so. Receiving mostly anonymous data dumps and composing didactic summaries of them isn't quite the same thing as developing real human sources and nurturing them over time. I think it's telling that when Assange got the motherload of all data caches – those 250,000 cables Bradley Manning stole from the US State Department – he turned to mainstream news organizations like the New York Times and the UK's Guardian to make sense of them. It's also telling that most of those organizations are no longer working with him.

From my perspective, Assange was little more than a conduit – first from members of Anonymous, who hacked private servers and shared the booty with WikiLeaks, and later Bradley Manning. I think that puts him in a different category than the reporters who are currently on the NSA secrets beat.

Your opinion and mileage may vary.

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