World News

04.16.13

How Julian Assange Fooled the Media Once Again

Once again, the media slobbered over the latest Julian Assange “revelation” of already-public documents, while another much more important investigation based on true reporting was largely ignored. Michael Moynihan on how the WikiLeaks founder keeps journalists dancing to his tune—and why it demonstrates a worrisome trend.

Last week an organization run by a crusading Australian journalist, working in concert with mainstream media outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post, facilitated a series of blockbuster stories based on 2 million leaked documents—an astonishing 200 gigabytes of data—detailing the secret offshore holdings of the ultra-rich.

The revelations were presented with minimal drama: no impassioned press conferences, no suggestions of dark conspiracies, and not a bottle-blonde megalomaniac in sight. It was a monumental leak, but missing the now customary declaration that the leakers were upending the norms of traditional—and institutionally corrupt—journalism. The astute reader will by now have guessed that this crusading Australian wasn’t WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Gerard Ryle, a veteran of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, is the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). As its name suggests, ICIJ and its media partners engaged in old-fashioned investigative journalism: receiving documents, collating them, and reporting them with contextual detail. The project, ICIJ says, is an investigation into “120,000 offshore companies and trusts and nearly 130,000 individuals and agents” in more than 170 countries.

I asked around—fellow journalists, well-informed friends, lunkheaded acquaintances—and only a few were familiar with the ICIJ scoop, though almost all knew of WikiLeaks’s latest “release” of documents. In a press conference last week, the organization announced “PlusD” (also called the “Kissinger Archive”), a massive collection of diplomatic cables from between 1973 and ’76. It would have been quite a coup for Assange had the declassified documents not resided on the National Archives website since 2006. Free and available to all. As Assange acknowledges, with evasive qualification, he merely downloaded the files from a public website, shifted them onto WikiLeaks servers, and built a better search engine.

It’s an admirable public service, but Assange, who lards his public pronouncements with overstatement and conspiracy, said in a statement that the “material that we have published [sic] today is the single most significant geopolitical publication that has ever existed.” With WikiLeaks losing relevance since the truly significant “Cablegate” release in 2010, the organization has been beset by infighting, legal problems, and a lack of new material.

Once said to have been rewriting the rules of journalism, Assange has become an outlaw librarian.

Assange tweeted his thanks to those who assisted in the “detailed covert work” of republishing the freely available cables. At a press conference, WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told reporters that the group was making the archive “available to the general public” because they were “hard to approach” on the National Archives website, while Assange twice offered the rehearsed line that the files were “hidden in the borderline between secrecy and complexity.”

Complexity. Hard to approach. Accessible to the general public. Once said to have been rewriting the rules of journalism, Assange has become an outlaw librarian.

Nevertheless, Salon wrote of “the latest cable leak[s]” from the group, while writing in the same report that the documents weren’t leaked, just “previously difficult to access.” The Guardian called the old documents “a fresh batch of US cables published by WikiLeaks.” AFP enthused over the latest tranche of “leaked” documents. A clueless anchor on the always clueless television station RT asked a guest, “Is there any indication yet of who gave these documents to WikiLeaks?”

Historians, journalists, and scholars regularly use the National Archives search engine to browse declassified material. It’s perhaps not the smoothest browsing experience, but it didn’t take me long to find a pile of interesting documents on the Pinochet dictatorship. Only the paranoid would suggest that the government’s lack of technological sophistication was deliberately obfuscatory. But an astonishing number of reporters fell for the Assange ruse.

The Sydney Morning Herald said the material was “largely neglected by historians, owing to the absence of an effective search engine,” which WikiLeaks had now provided. In a typically contradictory report, Voice of America claimed that WikiLeaks had made the “leaked US documents searchable” material that was once “difficult for the public to access.” Slate said the documents weren’t “terribly easy to get” prior to the WikiLeaks rerelease, adding an Assange-like parenthetical that this was perhaps “not entirely accidental.” Variations of this argument were made by Der Spiegel, The Daily Mail, The Independent, Journalism.co.uk (!), Macleans, etc.

The lazy list is depressingly long. And I suppose Assange and I can now agree on at least one point: the lamentable state of modern journalism, where gangs of hyperconfident children churn out third-rate content in the never-ending quest for clicks. As a result, almost every news outlet misdescribed at least one detail of the WikiLeaks stunt.

When former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher died, reporters dug into the “Kissinger Archive” in search of quick news. One document, detailing the American government’s early assessment of Thatcher, had “coincidentally [has] been made public on the day of her death,” said The Daily Mail. Salon declared it “one of the early and timely gems to emerge” from the collection. AFP marveled that “WikiLeaks reveal[ed]” the 35-year-old cable.

Well, not really. In 2007, the London Sunday Times reprinted the cable (which, it said, had been retrieved from “the online database of the National Archives in Washington”), as did David Torrance’s 2009 book 'We in Scotland': Thatcherism in a Cold Climate and Claire Berlinski’s 2011 biography There is No Alternative.

When The Australian headlined a story “Secrets of Gough Whitlam era out in the open [sic] after WikiLeaks disclosures,” they were likely unaware that one of these revelations—that Chairman Mao “confided” to the former Australian prime minister that he was anticipating his “appointment with God”—was discussed in Ross Terrell’s 1984 book The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong.

And the most repeated quote from the archive—which was highlighted in WikiLeaks’s press release—comes from a 1975 cable in which Henry Kissinger jokes that “the illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.” Salon used the Kissinger quote in a headline, adding that it provided “an early teaser of the documents’ contents.” The Kissinger joke, The Belfast Telegraph said, could now be read “thirty-eight years later.”

This is ignorance as revelation. In fact, the Kissinger quote was widely known two years before the cable was produced. A 1973 article in The New York Times quoted Kissinger saying the very same thing. You see, Hilarious Henry used to make this “joke” quite frequently.

You see how all of this works? It’s the music impresario “discovering” a band; they always existed, it’s just that now someone powerful is promoting them. It’s a mixed blessing that Assange’s celebrity is provoking journalists to do what historians have long done. Because the need to shovel content online, often shorn of context and slotted into some ideological philippic, will hardly stem the tide of junk history.

The good news, though, is that sequestered in the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange is getting back to his roots. The “Kissinger Archive” demonstrates that without Pvt. Bradley Manning, currently on trial for providing Assange with the “Cablegate” material, the WikiLeaks impresario hasn’t done much to “revolutionize” media. If he ever gets out of the embassy, though, he could probably get a pretty good gig as a Web developer.