The media’s authoritarianism and WikiLeaks

The willingness of leading media outlets to amplify clear falsehoods highlights their true allegiances

Topics: WikiLeaks,

(updated below – Update II – Update III)

After I highlighted the multiple factual inaccuracies in Time‘s WikiLeaks article yesterday (see Update V) — and then had an email exchange with its author, Michael Lindenberger — the magazine has now appended to the article what it is calling a “correction.”  In reality, the “correction” is nothing of the sort; it is instead a monument to the corrupted premise at the heart of American journalism.

Initially, note that Time has refused to correct its blatantly false claim that WikiLeaks has published “thousands of classified State Department cables” and posted “thousands of secret diplomatic cables” when, in reality, they’ve posted only 1,269 of the more than 250,000 cables they possess: less than 1/2 of 1 %.  It’s true that they provided roughly 251,000 cables to five newspapers, but they have only “posted” and “published” roughly 1,200 of them.  Time just decided to leave that statement standing even knowing it is factually false.

More significant is the “correction” itself.  It applies to Time‘s clearly false claim of “a distinction between WikiLeaks’ indiscriminate posting of the cables . . . and the more careful vetting evidenced by The New York Times.”  That is false because WikiLeaks’ release of cables had not been “indiscriminate” in any sense of the word.  As this AP article documents — and as a casual review of its site independently proves — WikiLeaks has done very little other than publish the specific cables that have been first released by newspapers around the world, including with the redactions applied by those papers.



So did Time correct its false statement by acknowledging its unquestionable falsity and pointing to the evidence disproving it?  Of course not.  Instead, they merely noted this at the bottom of the article: “Correction: The story has been amended to reflect the fact that Assange rejects claims that WikiLeaks has ‘indiscriminately’ dumped documents on its site.”  They also added to the body of the article a sentence noting that “claims that Assange has simply dumped the documents without reviewing them, much like a traditional editor would, have been disputed” because “Assange himself told TIME that each diplomatic cable his site has published has been vetted by his own team or by the editors of newspapers with whom he has shared the documents.”

In other words, the most Time is willing to do — when forced by public complaints — is note that “some” people (i.e., Assange) “dispute” the Government’s accusatory claims of “indiscriminate” document dumping, ones uncritically amplified by Time and countless other media outlets.  The most they’re willing to do now is convert it into a “they-said/he-said” dispute.  But what they won’t do — under any circumstances — is state clearly that the Government’s accusations are false, even where, as here, they unquestionably are.  Anticipating that this would be the “correction” they issued, I even emailed Lindenberger before it was posted and wrote:

One thing, while I have you – the appropriate correction needed is **not** a he-said-/he-said formulation (“we said ‘indiscriminate,’ but Assange denies this”).

That WikiLeaks has (with a handful of exceptions) published ONLY what other newspapers first published is a VERIFIABLE FACT. AP reported it, and all you have to do is look on its website to see that virtually all the cables published were ones first published by the five partner newspapers.

To say “some say ‘indiscriminate’ while Assange denies this” as a correction is misleading. As a journalist, you should tell your readers the verifiable FACT: that virtually all of the cables published thus far by [WikiLeaks] were first published by these newspapers.

What was vital here was to have Time state clearly that the claim of “indiscriminate” dumping of cables is factually false — not merely that Assange disputes it.  That could then be used to quash this lie each time it appears in other venues.  Of course, all of that fell on deaf ears, because my demand required that Time do exactly that which establishment media outlets, by definition, will rarely do: state clearly when the facts contradict — negate — claims by those in political power, especially when the target of the false claims is a demonized outsider-of-Washington faction like WikiLeaks.

The same exact thing happened when Time was finally forced in 2007 to issue a “correction” to Joe Klein’s factually false statement (which he was told by GOP Rep. Pete Hoekstra) that the Democrats’ FISA bill “would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans.”  Rather than admit what was 100% clear — that Klein’s statement was categorically false — Time instead merely noted in its “correction” that “Republicans believe it can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t.”

That was Time‘s “correction” to a factually false statement — some say yes and some say no: who are we to say which is true? we’re just “journalists” — and that’s what they just did again in the WikiLeaks case (by contrast, The Chicago Tribune, which had run Klein’s original Time story, issued a clear correction: “A Time magazine essay by Joe Klein that was excerpted on the editorial page Wednesday incorrectly stated that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would require a court approval of individual foreign surveillance targets. It does not” — that’s what a genuine correction looks like).

The reason this matters so much is because this falsehood is at the center of both the propaganda war against WikiLeaks and the efforts to criminally prosecute it by claiming it is not engaged in journalism.  Almost every radio and television show I’ve done over the last ten days concerning WikiLeaks — and most media accounts I read — have featured someone, somewhere, touting this lie, usually without contradiction: that WikiLeaks has indiscriminately dumped thousands of cables, whereas newspapers have only selectively published some.

As I wrote yesterday, WikiLeaks has every right to publish more cables than these newspapers decide to publish, and even to publish all of them — if it does that, that won’t change the legal issues one iota — but since they haven’t done that, media outlets have a responsibility not only to refrain from saying they have, but to state clearly that those who make this claim are spouting falsehoods.  That’s what “journalism” is supposed to be: stating what the facts are for one’s readers and viewers. Time‘s “correction” explicitly refuses to do that (though the magazine’s response is at least mildly better than the gross irresponsibility of The New Republic, which published at least two columns promoting this falsehood — one by James Rubin and the other by Todd Gitlin — and then did nothing other than publish a piece by Gitlin days later which devotes a couple of paragraphs to insisting he bears no responsibility whatsoever for his factually false statements and then the rest of the piece to attacking me for pointing them out).

* * * * *

Beyond the need to destroy this pervasive zombie lie about WikiLeaks’ conduct in the diplomatic cables disclosure, the broader point here is crucial:  the media’s willingness to repeat this lie over and over underscores its standard servile role in serving government interests and uncritically spreading government claims. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has an excellent analysis today documenting how, in the wake of 9/11, they dropped all pretenses of checking those in political power and instead began explicitly proclaiming — as The New York Times‘ chief stenographer and partner-of-Judy-Miller, Michael Gordon, suggested — that “capturing the dominant view within the government was the job [of journalists], even if that view was wrong.” As Rosen writes, “our press has never come to terms with the ways in which it got itself on the wrong side of secrecy as the national security state swelled in size after September 11th,” and thus: “To understand Julian Assange and the weird reactions to him in the American press we need to tell a story that starts with Judy Miller and ends with Wikileaks.”

That’s why this cannot-be-killed lie about WikiLeaks’ “indiscriminate” dumping of cables has so consumed me.  It’s not because it would change much if they had done or end up doing that — it wouldn’t — but because it just so powerfully proves how mindlessly subservient the American establishment media is: willing to repeat over and over completely false claims as long as it pleases the right people — the same people to whom they claim they are “adversarial watchdogs.”  It’s when they engage in such clear-cut, deliberate propagandizing that their true function — their real identity — is thrown into such stark relief.

Just to underscore this point a bit further, consider this remarkable (and remarkably good) Editorial from The Guardian yesterday, which not only vehemently defends WikiLeaks, but — extraordinarily — also justifies the “denial of service” attacks from anonymous individuals around the world aimed at various companies serving the Government’s war on WikiLeaks by depriving them of all services (MasterCard, Amazon, Paypal, etc.):

These companies all considered that their association with WikiLeaks damaged their brand image, a reflection prompted in some cases by a helpful call from the US state department. In essence they are trying to have it both ways: pretending in their marketing that they are free spirits and enablers of the cyber world, but only living up to that image as long as they don’t upset anyone really important. . . . .

The hacktivists of Anonymous may be accused of many things – such as immaturity or being run by a herd instinct. But theirs is the cyber equivalent of non-violent action or civil disobedience. It disrupts rather than damages. In challenging the credit card companies and the web hosts in this way, they are reminding these businesses that their brand reputation relies not only on how the state department sees them, but also on how they maintain their independence in the eyes of their users. . . .

In times when big business and governments attempt to monitor and control everything, there is a need as never before for an internet that remains a free and universal form of communication. WikiLeaks’ chief crime has been to speak truth to power. What is at stake is nothing less than the freedom of the internet. All the rest is a sideshow distracting attention from the real battle that is being fought. We should all keep focus on the true target.

The damage caused by the “denial of service” attacks on these companies has been trivial. Even a CNN article today — which absurdly asks in its headline: “Is WikiLeaks engaged in ‘cyber war’?” — quotes Bruce Schneier comparing “the pro-WikiLeaks attacks on MasterCard and Visa to a bunch of protesters standing in front of an office building, refusing to let workers in. It’s annoying, but it didn’t shut down the operation.”  It was basically an act of civil disobedience — aimed at protesting the collusive role these corporations played in trying to punish WikiLeaks despite no finding of wrongdoing — which caused virtually no real damage.

Despite all that, it is impossible to conceive of any establishment media outlet in the U.S. uttering a peep of support for what those protesters did.  The immediate consensus in the American political and media class was that these activists were engaged in pure, unmitigated destruction — even evil — and should be severely punished. That’s because the greatest sin in our political culture is doing anything other than meekly submitting even to assertions of lawless and thuggish government and corporate power.  If the Government and the largest corporations collaborate to lawlessly destroy WikiLeaks for the crime of engaging in threatening journalism, then you simply write polite letters to Congress or complain on your blog; what you don’t do under any circumstances is resist or fight back using even symbolic gestures of disobedience.  That’s the authoritarian mentality pervading — defining — not only the establishment media but (as a result) much of the citizenry.

Just contrast the angry denunciations over these activists’ simplistic, relatively innocuous denial of service attacks, with the apathy toward (or even support for) the far more sophisticated and damaging “cyber attacks” launched at WikiLeaks, which resulted in their permanent removal from any recognizable URL (and now can only be found through some impossible-to-remember numerical address; added:  they are also now at wikileaks.ch).  Whoever was responsible for those attacks aimed at WikiLeaks — even if it were a government agency — is acting every bit as lawlessly as the adolescent (though well-intentioned) activists responsible for shutting down MasterCard’s website for a few hours. But it is only the latter transgressions that trigger any real anger.

Identically, note how few object to the fact that the DOJ is investigating the pro-WikiLeaks attacks, but not — of course — the ones directed at WikiLeaks.  That’s because we collectively believe — with the establishment media leading the way — that the most powerful authorities have the unfettered right to do whatever they want to anyone who is sufficiently demonized as Bad, while the worst sin is to do anything outside of approved (i.e., impotent) means to protest establishment power and authority, no matter how destructive and criminal the ends are to which that power and authority is being applied.

This is the same mentality that expresses such self-righteous outrage over the mere prospect that disclosures of the truth by WikiLeaks might hypothetically one day lead to the death of a single innocent person, while barely uttering any real anger over the massive numbers of innocents actually being killed right now by the U.S. Government.  And it’s the same mentality that purports to acknowledge the massive secrecy abuses, deceit and pervasive crimes of the U.S. Government, while demanding that one of the very few people who apparently risked something to do anything meaningful to stop all of that — Bradley Manning — be severely punished, or that Julian Assange be punished.  This is authoritarianism in its classic form — an instinctively servile loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly and destructively — and it finds its purest and most vigorous expression in those who most loudly claim devotion to checking it: our intrepid adversarial journalists.

 

UPDATE:  For a slightly different but related service the establishment media dutifully provides to the Government, see this excellent Marcy Wheeler post from today, entitled:  ”Hatfill and Wen Ho Lee and Plame and al-Awlaki and Assange.”

 

UPDATE II:  CNN today spewed pure, absurd fear-mongering against WikiLeaks; Assange really is their new Saddam Hussein and WikiLeaks their new WMD.  And just to underscore the contrast between how media outlets around the world behave, the French newspaper Liberation — a mainstream center-left publication — announced today that it was creating a “mirror-WikiLeaks” site and hosting it on their paper’s website (its mirror site is here).  It is even possible to conceive of a mainstream American newspaper doing that?

 

UPDATE III:  The New York Times has a new article which, in the first paragraph, takes note of these facts:

For many Europeans, Washington’s fierce reaction to the flood of secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks displays imperial arrogance and hypocrisy, indicating a post-9/11 obsession with secrecy that contradicts American principles.

You don’t say.  Along those lines, former Bush OLC official Jack Goldsmith today said he agrees “with those who think Assange is being unduly vilified” and, further, is unable to see how WikiLeaks’ conduct can be distinguished from either that of The New York Times (both in this leak and past ones), as well as “Bob Woodward, [who], with the obvious assistance of many top Obama administration officials, disclosed many details about top secret programs, code names, documents, meetings, and the like.”  He adds, with great understatement:  ”the U.S. government reaction to WikiLeaks is more than a little awkward for the State Department’s Internet Freedom initiative.”

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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