CBS and Julian Assange

Sunday's "60 Minutes" interview gave WikiLeaks founder his best platform yet

Topics: WikiLeaks, Julian Assange,

CBS and Julian AssangeJulian Assange

I owe an apology to Steve Kroft and his colleagues at the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” — and want to congratulate them for performing a genuine public service last night.

As you may know, the program featured a long interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.  My initial reaction was incredulity, at what seemed like an amateurish if not downright embarrassing performance by the interviewer. In particular, I was astonished at the tone and substance of some of the questions, which seemed at times to come out of the “old media sucking up to power” school of which CBS often seems to be a proud member. Here’s one of the exchanges:

Kroft: There’s a special set of rules in the United States for disclosing classified information. There is long-standing …

Assange: There’s a special set of rules for soldiers. For members of the State Department, who are disclosing classified information. There’s not a special set of rules for publishers to disclose classified information. There is the First Amendment. It covers the case. And there’s been no precedent that I’m aware of in the past 50 years of prosecuting a publisher for espionage. It is just not done. Those are the rules. You do not do it.

At first, this sounds like an interviewer simply parroting the establishment media’s sense of what is “allowed” and what isn’t. It reflects an inside-the-Beltway echo chamber of insiders protecting each other.

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But then, the genius of the interview becomes clear. These are not hard questions. In fact, they’re pure softballs. Again and again, Julian Assange swats them out of the park. In the above example, he points out that the rules, such as they are, are about the people with immediate access to classified and/or secret information, not the journalists who receive information and then publish it.

What I’ve concluded is that “60 Minutes” has deep sympathy for Julian Assange, and did its best to give him the kind of platform that would, first, make him seem much less threatening to the United States audience that has been so thoroughly propagandized by the government and other major media; and second, reinforce the value of journalism in general, and investigative journalism in particular.

Is CBS that subtle? I sure hope so.

If you haven’t already seen the interview, you should. Here’s the first segment:

And here’s the second one:

A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here.

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