In a July 2010 interview with WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, TED.com’s Chris Anderson said WikiLeaks had released in just a few years more classified state and military documents than every other media outlet combined.
“It’s a worry isn’t it,” Assange said. “That the rest of the world’s media is doing such a bad job that a little group of activists is able to reveal more of that sort of information than the rest of the world’s media.”
After more than 100 days online, the WikiLeaks Cable Viewer continues to release more evidence of dodgy diplomatic moves and US state secrets.
Recently released cables have revealed the complicity of Swedish and Russian foreign affairs officials with the US over European Union negotiations about free trade agreements and energy market policy.
Other cables have given evidence of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s requests for detailed biographic data on other diplomats. A recent cable gave “Kudos to [US] embassy Buenos Aires” for its successful spy work.
Many mainstream media outlets have profited greatly from reporting on WikiLeaks’ scoops. But this hasn’t stopped them from publishing a series of smear pieces against Assange and WikiLeaks.
Media coverage about WikiLeaks has become awash with tabloid-style hit pieces and tell-all books. The real news, WikiLeak’s exposure of US “diplomacy”, has often been sidelined.
One recent example was a claim by Ian Hislop, editor of the satirical British magazine Private Eye. He said that Assange told him, in an off-the-record phone conversation, that there was a “Jewish-led conspiracy” against WikiLeaks.
The “news” about Hislop’s claim, which is denied by Assange and cannot be corroborated, was reported around the world. It received far more coverage than many of the 5000 cables WikiLeaks has so far released.
In a Private Eye editorial, Hislop wrote “as much as he could remember” of the conversation. Assange had phoned Hislop to refute an earlier Private Eye story that said WikiLeaks was associated with an anti-Semitic Russian journalist, an allegation WikiLeaks has denied.
“He said that I and Private Eye should be ashamed of ourselves for joining in the international conspiracy to smear WikiLeaks," Hislop wrote.
WikiLeaks refuted Hislop’s claims in a March 1 statement. It said Hislop had “distorted, invented or misremembered almost every significant claim and phrase”.
“In particular, 'Jewish conspiracy' is completely false, in spirit and in word. It is serious and upsetting. Rather than correct a smear, Mr. Hislop has attempted, perhaps not surprisingly, to justify one smear with another in the same direction.”
WikiLeaks pointed out it “promotes the ideal of ‘scientific journalism’ — where the underlaying evidence of all articles is available to the reader precisely in order to avoid these type of distortions.
“We treasure our strong Jewish support and staff, just as we treasure the support from pan-Arab democracy activists and others who share our hope for a just world.”
Yet the media outlets throughout the world were happy to report Hislop’s “distortions” as though they were facts.
For example, the March 5 Age and Sydney Morning Herald published an article on famous “ranters” that lumped Assange together with the misogynist woman-beater Charlie Sheen, the fashion designer John Galliano (who recently told two women their Jewish ancestors should have been gassed) and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
The article said: “In any other week, Assange's alleged blast to Private Eye editor Ian Hislop about the journalists who ‘failed my masculinity test’ would have rapidly become the meme of the week.”
“But he's been outgunned by the unhinged narcissism of the competition.”
In its March 1 statement, WikiLeaks also criticised the role of the British Guardian, which recently published a biography of Assange, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.
The book’s co-author David Leigh is a former confidant of Assange and has written on many of the leaked cables for the Guardian.
WikiLeaks said Leigh “deliberately, and secretly, broke an agreement signed by the Guardian’s editor-in-chief stating that 1. the Guardian was not to publish WikiLeaks cables 2. the Guardian was to keep them confidential. 3. the Guardian was to not store them on an internet connected computer system.
“Leigh had previously shown himself to be a competent journalist, but secretly broke all elements of the contract.
“On being notified that the German news weekly Der Spiegel was writing a book (in German) that would expose this breach, Leigh attempted to cover his actions, first by laundering a distorted version of the events through a friend at Vanity Fair then by writing his own book, which he had published through the Guardian.”
Former WikiLeaks associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg has also published his own book, Inside WikiLeaks, which includes irrelevant allegations about Assange’s personality flaws and hygiene.
Despite WikiLeaks’ repeated criticisms of the two books, Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood studio DreamWorks has bought the rights to them to make WikiLeaks: The Movie.
Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger welcomed the movie deal and said that Assange would make “a compelling character who goes beyond what any Hollywood scriptwriter would dare to invent,” the March 3 Guardian reported.
In response, WikiLeaks said on Twitter: “This is how bullshit ends up being history.”
Politicians and commentators worldwide have gone as far as to accuse Assange and WikiLeaks of terrorism, including US vice-president Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Assange said in an October 25 interview at the Frontline Club that a “titanic abusive organisation” such as the Pentagon “trying to attack you as a result of your work” was a huge challenge to face.
He said it explained why media heavyweights like the New York Times, which has handed over all of the cables WikiLeaks gave it to the US government for editing, and The Guardian had started to attack WikiLeaks.
“You don’t need to fact check when you’re writing about less powerful organisations,” he said. “What’s the free press vanguard going to do? Sue you for libel?”
By contrast, WikiLeaks says its purpose is to promote “scientific journalism” — a democratic style of journalism in which the sources of a story are published along with the article.
“We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true,” Assange wrote in the December 8 Australian.
“Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”
Lawyer Alan Dershowitz told Spiegel Online that Assange is “a new kind of journalist”.
“This is the Pentagon Papers case of the 21st century involving new media and a much more international form of journalism. The Internet knows no national borders.”
He said, in the case of the US, “freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of association are more important than protecting secrets”.
But as Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald said on March 1: “Nobody … loathes Assange the way journalists do; recall that they led the way in condemning him and calling for his prosecution for doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Distrust in the mass media, which habitually prints stories with factual errors and a bias that favours powerful interests, has created the impetus to develop this new type of journalism.
Assange, an Australian citizen being illegally persecuted by foreign states and denied protection enshrined in Australian law, should be defended by the world press that has undeniably benefited from WikiLeaks’ mission.
The editors and journalists of the corporate media, who look to curry favour or publish a story out no matter who it destroys, deserve the sharpest criticism for failing to defend WikiLeaks — one of the best examples of investigative journalism to date.
The same must be said for the mainstream media’s near silence about the imprisonment of US private Bradley Manning.
Manning has being held in solitary confinement in US military prisons for almost 300 days, facing life in prison or even the death penalty over allegations he was the one who leaked the secret cables that have provided corporate media organisations with so many stories, and has made them so much money.