“The Department of Justice just declared war––not on WikiLeaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media.” —Edward Snowden*
“For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment. It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets.” —Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union
“No matter your thoughts on Julian Assange, the latest indictments—under the outdated Espionage Act—are a disgrace. If you support the indictments out of hate for him, you’re giving Trump a weapon to restrict the press. The charges should be dropped and the Espionage Act repealed.” —Sen. Mike Gravel
We are at a pivotal moment in history. With the Assange espionage indictments, we are within spitting distance of naked fascism. How will we choose to act?
Surprisingly, the alarm has been raised by members of the mainstream press, at least right now:
- In a piece headlined, “Julian Assange’s Indictment Aims at the Heart of the First Amendment,” the New York Times Editorial Board said: “this case now represents a threat to freedom of expression and, with it, the resilience of American democracy itself.”
- The LA Times Editorial Board warned: “In prosecuting Assange for soliciting classified information from Manning and then disseminating it, the Justice Department has adopted a legal theory that could potentially make criminals of many conscientious reporters who cover defense and national security.”
- A Washington Post columnist noted: “What’s alarming about the indictment is the way it would criminalize some of the basic functions of newsgathering and publication.”
- Rachel Maddow, no supporter of Assange’s, said: “The Justice Department today, the Trump administration today, just put every journalistic institution in this country on Julian Assange’s side of the ledger. On his side of the fight.”
- Even the Wall Street Journal cautioned: “The danger, in the Assange case, is that it becomes a precedent for governments on the right or left to prosecute journalists they don’t like for reporting secrets. The Espionage Act is too broad, and where is the limiting principle?”
We shouldn’t expect this indignation to last, however. The WSJ, for example, immediately offered a remedy: “Congress could amend the Espionage Act to draw a brighter line around bad actors like Mr. Assange.” How long before the other big players take up this call, or find similar dodges? In trying to claim that Assange is not engaging in journalistic activity, the Trump administration is splitting hairs. Look for the media to do the same, when push comes to shove. Most of the above links are loaded with potential caveats; I picked out the most pro-Assange parts I could find, and in the final accounting they won’t end up being representative.
No, we cannot rely on the corporate media to be stalwart defenders of Assange or even the First Amendment. This initial clucking of the hens will probably turn out to be the high water mark of “The Resistance”™ and they’ll soon settle down to their usual scratching—on the surface only.
What media outlets will dare to be mavericks in this era of higher stakes? A reminder that over 90% of the U.S. news media is owned by just half a dozen corporations driven by the profit motive, with a web of interconnections with all the industries responsible for the sorry state of the planet: weapons, big ag, finance, etc. It won’t be them. Since 9/11, we have already been witnessing a narrowing of the spectrum of allowable discourse (i.e., voices critical of war are fired or quit) and that inertia is difficult to slow, let alone turn around. Only gadflies like Assange and the increasingly algorithmically-marginalized alternative media can be the watchdogs we need. So, we’re in the classic position of needing to defend the unpopular against the monolithic for the sake of the common good.
No one wants to be next Assange. Who can blame journalists if they are concerned with holding down work in an industry that has shed 23% of its jobs between 2008 and 2017, the majority of those at newspapers? But we should bear this in mind when we consume what they produce.
We can also assume that the chilling effects of these indictments on reporting have already started. From this point forward, investigative journalism of government activity in general, and reporting of secrets specifically, will likely become rarer. Such exposures were already getting fewer and farther between due to Obama’s unprecedented attacks on whistle-blowers (see The Nation, Mother Jones, Truthout, The Black Agenda Report and The Guardian). Speaking in 2012, Associated Press President and CEO, Gary Pruitt revealed: “The actions of the DOJ against AP are already having an impact beyond the specifics of this case. Some longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking with us—even on stories unrelated to national security. In some cases, government employees we once checked in with regularly will no longer speak to us by phone. Others are reluctant to meet in person.”
Indeed, like runners passing a relay baton, each US presidential regime has done its part to chip away at the quality of the press since at least Reagan, who led the way in dismantling the Fairness Doctrine. Some have done more damage than others, but none have reversed course. In the case of these indictments against Assange, Obama laid the groundwork and Trump only needed to take this one last step.
Democrats have been among the shrillest critics of Assange and WikiLeaks since the release of the Podesta emails in 2016 (see my “DNC Playing Dirty Tricks on WikiLeaks“), and after the election, they made bombastic claims about the supposed effects of the emails on the outcome. However, liberal-leaning FiveThirtyEight.com carefully parsed the numbers and concluded that “there just isn’t a clean-cut story in the data” and characterized “the evidence that WikiLeaks had an impact” as “circumstantial.” Methodical analysis like this hasn’t gotten much attention, though. What we see here are the toxic effects of partisanship. But this issue—the survival of the First Amendment—supersedes such loyalties and concerns. Any Democrats still holding on to hate for WikiLeaks need to drop it and give their support to Assange. This isn’t the time for such pettiness.
But we ought not to hold our breath on that one either. What Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel has called, “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is a real thing and the crowd that lionizes lying sacks of shit from the security state (like this guy and this guy) is unlikely to bestow their sympathies on a political dissident. It doesn’t matter that Assange isn’t being prosecuted for messing with St. Hillary’s “turn,” and that he’s being targeted for publishing what Chelsea Manning leaked: war crimes and diplomatic scandals, many of which took place in the George W. Bush administration. By this dangerous standard, no one is safe. And how ugly is it that hatred of Trump leads to a de facto exoneration of sins of Bush? Gross.
I personally agree with Keith Warner, a commenter to the Jimmy Dore Show video, “Why Assange Prosecution Is Complete Bulls**t!” who suggested that “every presidential candidate should be asked if they will pardon Assange if he is convicted.” Or even if he hasn’t been convicted yet, I would add. As Ford showed us with his pardon of Nixon, you don’t have to wait for that.
But neither politicians nor the media will do the right thing unless there is sustained public pressure, and my fear is that not enough people will mobilize on Assange’s behalf to be effective at this task. As much as some prominent parties in the fourth estate are in a huff right now, all the ones I listed here participated in the demonization of Assange up until now. Their campaign to make people hate him worked and that won’t get turned around overnight, absent some new revelation. It’s up to activists to keep this fight alive and to ceaselessly harangue both decision-makers and taste-makers alike.
I’ll end with these words from whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and was charged under different clauses from the Espionage Act at the time:
“But the challenge is on as of now, right now. Every journalist in the country now knows for the first time that she or he is subject to prosecution for doing their job as journalists. It cuts out the First Amendment, essentially. That eliminates the First Amendment freedom of the press, which is the cornerstone of our American democracy and of this republic. So there’s an immediate focus, there should be an immediate concern not just for journalists over here and publishers, but for everyone who wants this country to remain a democratic republic.”
For updates, and to offer support, visit defend.WikiLeaks.org
*See also: Snowden discussing the Assange espionage indictments in more detail on Motherboard’s CYBER Podcast