How propaganda poisons the mind - and our discourse

The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Politico are just some of the outlets in need of a real retraction

Published January 12, 2011 11:13AM (EST)

Alan Rusbridger
Alan Rusbridger

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Last week, on January 3, The Guardian published a scathing Op-Ed by James Richardson blaming WikiLeaks for endangering the life of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the democratic opposition in Zimbabwe.  Richardson -- a GOP operative, contributor to, and a for-hire corporate spokesman -- pointed to a cable published by WikiLeaks in which American diplomats revealed that Tsvangirai, while publicly opposing American sanctions on his country, had privately urged their continuation as a means of weakening the Mugabe regime:  an act likely to be deemed to be treasonous in that country, for obvious reasons.  By publishing this cable, "WikiLeaks may have committed its own collateral murder," Richardson wrote.  He added:  "WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life."

This accusation against WikiLeaks was repeated far and wide.  In The Wall Street Journal, Jamie Kirchick -- the long-time assistant of The New Republic's Marty Peretz -- wrote under this headline:  "Julian Assange's reckless behavior could cost Zimbabwe's leading democrat his life."  Kirchick explained that "the crusading 'anti-secrecy' website released a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Harare" which exposed Tsvangirai's support for sanctions.  As "a result of the WikiLeaks revelations," Kirchick wrote, the reform leader would likely be charged with treason, and "Mr. Tsvangirai will have someone additional to blame: Julian Assange of WikiLeaks."  The Atlantic's Chris Albon, in his piece entitled "How WikiLeaks Just Set Back Democracy in Zimbabwe," echoed the same accusation, claiming "WikiLeaks released [this cable] to the world" and that Assange has thus "provided a tyrant with the ammunition to wound, and perhaps kill, any chance for multiparty democracy."  Numerous other outlets predictably mimicked these claims.

There was just one small problem with all of this:  it was totally false.  It wasn't WikiLeaks which chose that cable to be placed into the public domain, nor was it WikiLeaks which first published it.  It was The Guardian that did that.  In early December, that newspaper -- not WikiLeaks -- selected and then published the cable in question.  This fact led The Guardian -- more than a full week after they published Richardson's accusatory column -- to sheepishly add this obscured though extremely embarrassing "clarification" at the end of his column:

• This article was amended on 11 January 2011 to clarify the fact that the 2009 cable referred to in this article was placed in the public domain by the Guardian, and not as originally implied by WikiLeaks. The photo caption was also amended to reflect this fact.

The way this "clarification" was done was bizarre.  The misleading headline still remains ("If Morgan Tsvangirai is charged with treason, WikiLeaks will have earned the ignominy of Robert Mugabe's gratitude").  So do numerous sentences attributing publication to WikiLeaks ("WikiLeaks may have committed its own collateral murder . . . . in the wake of  WikiLeaks' release . . . where Mugabe's strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe's democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed").  Meanwhile, other sentences originally in the piece were changed without notice:  for instance, the claim that "WikiLeaks released last week a classified US state department cable relating to a 2009 meeting between Tsvangirai and American and European ambassadors" was changed to read:  "The Guardian released . . . ."  And the photo caption was changed from "Zimbabwe's PM Morgan Tsvangirai faces a treason inquiry after WikiLeaks's publication of a US embassy cable" to "after the Guardian's publication."

[There are other strange aspects to The Guardian's behavior here.  If a newspaper publishes an accusation this serious and gets it this wrong, isn't more required than the quiet addition of two short sentences at the end of the column, eight days later without any announcement?  Moreover, Guardian's Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger objected last night to my attributing Richardson's piece to "The Guardian," insisting that the section where it appeared was comparable to an open forum such as Salon's Open Salon; but that comparison is quite inaccurate, since columns published in The Guardian's "Comment is Free" section are reserved for pieces solicited or accepted by Guardian Editors and published only with their prior approval, whereas "Open Salon" is open to anyone without editorial approval, i.e., like a blog's comment section.   Beyond that, while The Guardian disclosed that Richardson is a GOP operative and works for "Hynes Communications," it doesn't reveal that this organization is the self-proclaimed "nation’s leading social media public affairs agency" representing the online communications strategies of "leading companies and trade associations in the health care; telecommunications; pharmaceutical; finance; defense; energy; aerospace; manufacturing; travel; and retail industries."  In other words, Richardson, like so many people posing as pundits, is a paid communications hack, not some independent commentator.

But far worse, The Guardian published a news article on December 27 -- headlined:  "Morgan Tsvangirai faces possible Zimbabwe treason charge" -- which also attributed publication of this cable to WikiLeaks, and never once mentioned that it was actually The Guardian which did so.  The article's headline states:  "Lawyers to examine PM's comments on sanctions after WikiLeaks reveals talks with US diplomats," while the body of the article reports:  "Zimbabwe is to investigate bringing treason charges . . . over confidential talks with US diplomats revealed by WikiLeaks."  That news story remains uncorrected by The Guardian.]

But at least The Guardian -- for which I have high journalistic regard -- published some sort of correction, woefully inadequate though it may be.  Why hasn't The Wall Street Journal, or The Atlantic, or Politico?   While The Guardian appended this correction yesterday, WikiLeaks on Twitter -- a full week ago -- made clear the falsehood driving all these stories:  "It is not acceptable [for] the Guardian to blame us for a cable the Guardian selected and published on Dec 8."  WikiLeaks then immediately pointed to this post thoroughly documenting that it was The Guardian that first published this cable as part of a December 8 news article it published regarding revelations about Zimbabwe.  So this glaring, serious error has been publicly known and amplified for a full week (through WikiLeaks' Twitter account, followed by 650,000 people, which presumably is followed by anyone writing about WikiLeaks, at least I'd hope so).  Yet these Beacons of Journalistic Responsibility have still failed to acknowledge that the very serious accusation they published about WikiLeaks was based in a wholesale fabrication.

* * * * *

This is not an isolated instance.  The reason I've been so repetitively vigilant about pointing out the falsehood that WikiLeaks indiscriminately published 250,000 diplomatic cables is because there is a full-scale government/media campaign to demonize the group through outright fiction of the type that sold the nation on Iraq's WMD stockpiles and Al Qaeda alliance.  The undeniable truth from the start is that, with very few exceptions, WikiLeaks has only been publishing those cables which its newspaper partners first publish (and WikiLeaks thereafter publishes the cables with the redactions applied by those papers).  This judicious editorial process -- in which WikiLeaks largely relies on the editorial judgment of these newspapers for what to release -- was detailed more than a month ago by the Associated Press.  That's the process that explains why The Guardian -- not WikiLeaks -- was who first published the Zimbabwe cable.  Yet the false accusations that WikiLeaks indiscriminately dumped 250,000 cables went on for weeks before it finally (mostly) stopped (once it was lodged forever in the minds of most Americans) -- and now we have the false claim that WikiLeaks injected this harmful Zimbabwe cable into the public domain, even though it simply didn't.

This is the propaganda campaign -- created by the U.S. Government and (as always) bolstered by the American media -- which is being used to justify WikiLeaks' destruction (and, with it, the repression of some of the most promising avenues for transparency and investigative journalism we've seen in many years).  Just consider this self-satire of a speech given yesterday by U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley, in which he sets out to rebut the notion that the U.S. is acting hypocritically by touting Internet freedom for the world while simultaneously attempting to obliterate WikiLeaks.  He says:

A free and vibrant press plays an important role around the world in the development of civil society and accountable governments. As a general rule, the freer the press, the more transparent and more democratic the government is likely to be. . . . No one is a greater advocate for a vibrant independent and responsible press, committed to the promotion of freedom of expression and development of a true global civil society, than the United States. Every day, we express concern about the plight of journalists (or bloggers) around the world who are intimidated, jailed or even killed by governments that are afraid of their people, and afraid of the empowerment that comes with the free flow of information within a civil society. . . .We remain arguably the most transparent society in the world.

Let's leave to the side all the Bush-era assaults on press freedom (including imprisoning numerous foreign journalists for years without charges).  Leave aside that Freedom House ranked the U.S. 24th in the world in press freedoms for 2009 (tied with Lithuania and the Czech Republic) and that Reporters Without Borders ranked it 20th.  Leave to the side that those rankings were issued before the Obama administration -- by all accounts -- became vastly more aggressive about prosecuting whistleblowers than any prior administration (even subpoenaing reporters to do it). 

Leave to the side the administration's demand that it have "backdoors" to all Internet encryption and its impeding of the whistleblower protections promised by candidate Obama.  Leave to the side how the Obama administration shields virtually every controversial executive branch action in the national security realm -- including plainly illegal ones -- from judicial review by invoking radically broad versions of secrecy privileges pioneered by the Bush DOJ.  And leave to the side the fact that many of the documents released by WikiLeaks are rather banal and uninformative, yet have been marked "SECRET":  showing how reflexively the U.S. Government hides most of what it does from its citizenry behind a wall of secrecy.

Instead, just look at what the U.S. Government is doing to WikiLeaks.  It just caused an international incident by demanding the Twitter data of numerous individuals including a sitting member of Iceland's Parliament.  American officials bullied private corporations and banks to cut off all ties with WikiLeaks.  And it's openly boasting of its intent to criminally prosecute the group for doing nothing more than what newspapers do all the time.  Crowley justified all that by saying this:

We can debate whether there are too many secrets, but no one should doubt that there has been substantial damage in the unauthorized release of a database containing, among other things, 251,000 State Department cables, many of them classified. . . .We are a nation of laws, and the laws of our country have been violated. Since we function under the rule of law, it is appropriate and necessary that we investigate and prosecute those who have violated U.S law. Some have suggested that the ongoing investigation marks a retreat from our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and Internet freedom. Nonsense.

Anyone passingly familiar with the Obama administration's justifications for refusing to investigate Bush-era crimes will be sickened by that bolded part, but leave to the side, too.  The key point here is that WikiLeaks didn't steal anything.  They didn't break any laws.  They did what newspapers do every day, what investigative journalism does at its core:  expose secret, corrupt actions of those in power.  And the attempt to criminalize WikiLeaks is thus nothing less than a full frontal assault on press and Internet freedoms.

That's where this propaganda comes in to play.  To justify this assault, the U.S. Government needs to claim that WikiLeaks is somehow distinct from what other press outlets do.  So it invents outright falsehoods to do so:  unlike newspapers, WikiLeaks indiscriminately dumps diplomatic cables without editorial judgment; unlike newspapers, they refuse to be transparent about their methods (nobody is less transparent about what they do than large newspapers); and now, WikiLeaks endangers people's lives by recklessly publishing a cable which leaves democratic leaders in Zimbabwe vulnerable to attack, even though it wasn't published by them at all, but by The Guardian.   

People devoted to a corrupt cause necessarily rely on falsehoods to advance it.  And what we're seeing here is not only the government doing that, but The Watchdog Media -- as usual -- serving as its most valuable ally.  At the very least, the outlets that published this serious -- and seriously false -- accusation owe their readers a prominent, clear retraction.


UPDATE:  Beyond the falsehood documented here, Aaron Bady of Berkeley's PhD program describes how Albon, Richardson and others are completely simplifying -- distorting -- the situation in Zimbabwe in order to demonize WikiLeaks over this cable. 

And Politico's Keach Hagey -- who wrote one of the above-referenced pieces repeating this falsehood -- has emailed me to say that she's now working to directly address these matters.  So credit where it's due.  We'll see if The Atlantic's Albon and The Wall Street Journal are similarly willing to acknowledge their serious errors.


UPDATE II:  Both Politico and The Atlantic have now issued a "correction" and an "update," respectively, by tacking on a paragraph to the end of their old article.  I'll leave it to readers to assess for themselves if that's adequate in light of the magnitude of the error made.  The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page and Kirchick have still said nothing, reflecting what they do and what they are.   About all of this, this person asks the key question:  "Would [these media outlets]  have written the exact same article, substituting Guardian for WL? I doubt it."  I doubt it, too -- highly -- and that's the point:  the political and media class is obsessed with demonizing WikiLeaks and painting them as fundamentally different than "respectable" media outlets, even if -- as happened here -- that's accomplished by blaming them for things they manifestly did not do.  That, of course, is the same strategy as the government is pursuing to justify the prosecution of WikiLeaks, so whether intended or not, attacks like these serve a vital enabling role.


UPDATE III:  The Guardian, through its deputy editor, Ian Katz, has a good, straightforward explanation of this episode and the issues I raised. I don't agree with everything Katz writes there, but kudos for addressing the issues with clarity and transparency.  On a related note, Armando at TalkLeft deftly highlights the key issue in this whole episode.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Media Criticism