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.
Two days ago I wrote a post about our 21st century surveillance state – how, in a world where the spooks get to decide who is or isn’t a “terrorist,” we are all automatically and permanently under suspicion. Amazingly, I managed to write that 1458-word post making a single reference to George Orwell. I must be slipping.
In it I took a gratuitous swipe at Julian Assange, which attracted the ire of some readers, who displayed their umbrage in the comments below it. I thought I’d spend today’s post expanding on what I said and why.
First, the gratuitous swipe:
I know some people worry about the safety of Julian Assange. (Others fantasize about him being killed in a drone strike.) Not me. Assange is not nearly as important as he likes to think he is. Assange is like a guy who goes to bed in a dark room, wakes up with the lights blazing, and thinks he invented electricity in his sleep.
I also mentioned him here:
So far, I think, the Guardian and others have exercised reasonable restraint in what they have reported. They are at least attempting to understand the data before presenting it, and to maintain a balance between the public’s right to know and putting lives or even countries in danger. Reasonable people can disagree about how good a job they’re doing at that, but it’s clear they’re trying to achieve a level of responsible disclosure (unlike, say, Julian Assange did when he released 250,000 unredacted state department cables from Bradley Manning).
I’ll summarize the complaints thusly:
1. I was just using the reference to Assange as a blatant attempt to get more traffic.
2. I wrongly accused Assange of posting all 250,000 unredacted state cables to WikiLeaks, potentially endangering the lives of the people mentioned within them.
3. I suggested Assange was not a real journalist.
4. I enjoy the piquant yet memorable aroma of my own flatulence.
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.
A hero ain't nothing but a sandwich
I get it. To many, Assange is a hero – the lone avenger against the forces of corporate and government evil. (I am guessing, based on his public statements, that he also sees himself this way.) But to criticize Assange is not the same as supporting the forces of evil. This is not a binary thing.
I was an early and vocal supporter of WikiLeaks. I've written about it in other venues easily a dozen times. I remember getting an email after one of the first posts I wrote about WikiLeaks from a guy named Julian Assange. I thought “Wikileaks hired a PR person? What an odd thing for an anonymous organization to do.” That was before WikiLeaks became The Julian Assange Show.
Is WikiLeaks important? Yes, or at least it was, for a time. It doesn't seem to have done much lately. And there are other services – like the New Yorker Magazine's Strongbox – that promise to do the same, only with adult supervision.
But Assange? Not so much. Unless you consider him to be the essential driving force behind the site, one without which WikiLeaks would crumble into nothingness, then no.
(And as a side note: Has anyone else noticed that all of the amazing stories about NSA spying that have come out post Snowden have been broken by reporters at US newspapers? Not bloggers. Not blow-dried cable news meat puppets. Good old ink- and html-stained wretches, god love em.)
Finally, flatulence. One reader suggested I take myself too seriously and that I am too in love with my own prose. Maybe. But in my experience writing is mostly about failing. Anyone who’s doing it correctly should find it a humbling experience.
There’s an old comic strip I used to have pinned above my desk with the caption: “Writing is God’s way of showing you how sloppy your thinking really is.” That’s still one of my guiding principles.
My last post was really my attempt to get my head around what’s happening to my profession, and if we are really witnessing the dying gasps of what we used to call the free press. I don’t think I quite made it all the way there.
But there’s always tomorrow.
Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.
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