Last Tuesday a top lawyer for the New York Times named David McCraw warned a room full of judges that the prosecution of Julian Assange for WikiLeaks publications would set a very dangerous precedent which would end up hurting mainstream news media outlets like NYT, the Washington Post, and other outlets which publish secret government documents.
“I think the prosecution of him would be a very, very bad precedent for publishers,” McCraw said. “From that incident, from everything I know, he’s sort of in a classic publisher’s position and I think the law would have a very hard time drawing a distinction between The New York Times and WikiLeaks.”
Do you know where I read about this? Not in the New York Times.
“Curiously, as of this writing, McCraw’s words have found no mention in the Times itself,” activist Ray McGovern wrote for the alternative media outlet Consortium News. “In recent years, the newspaper has shown a marked proclivity to avoid printing anything that might risk its front row seat at the government trough.”
So let’s unpack that a bit. It is now public knowledge that the Ecuadorian government is actively seeking to turn Assange over to be arrested by the British government. This was initially reported by RT, then independently confirmed by The Intercept, and is today full mainstream public knowledge being reported by mainstream outlets like CNN. It is also public knowledge that Assange’s asylum was granted by the Ecuadorian government due to a feared attempt to extradite him to the United States and prosecute him for WikiLeaks publications. Everyone from President Donald Trump to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ranking House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff to Democratic members of the US Senate have made public statements clearly indicating that there is a US government interest in getting Assange out of the shelter of political asylum and into prison.
The New York Times is aware of this, and as evidenced by McCraw’s comments it is also aware of the dangerous precedent that such a prosecution would set for all news media publications. The New York Times editorial staff are aware that the US government prosecuting a publisher for publishing important documents that had been hidden from the public would make it impossible for the Times to publish the same kind of material without fear of the same legal repercussions. It is aware that the maneuvers being taken against Assange present a very real existential threat to the possibility of real journalism and holding power to account.
You might think, therefore, that we’d be seeing a flood of analyses and op-eds from the New York Times aggressively condemning any movement toward the prosecution of Julian Assange. You might expect all media outlets in America to be constantly sounding the alarm about this, especially since the threat is coming from the Trump administration, which outlets like the New York Timesare always eager to circulate dire warnings about. You might expect every talking head on CNN and NBC to be ominously citing Assange as the clearest and most egregious case yet of Trump’s infamous “war on the free press”. Leaving aside the issues of morality, compassion and human rights that come with Assange’s case, you might think that if for no other reason than sheer unenlightened self interest they’d be loudly and aggressively defending him.
And yet, they don’t. And the fact that they don’t shows us what they really are.
Theoretically, journalism is meant to help create an informed populace and hold power to account. That’s why it’s the only profession explicitly named in the United States Constitution, and why freedom of the press has enjoyed such constitutional protections throughout US history. The press today is failing to protect Julian Assange because it has no intention of creating an informed populace or holding power to account.
This is not to suggest the existence of some grand, secret conspiracy among US journalists. It’s just a simple fact that plutocrats own most of the US news media and hire the people who run it, which has naturally created an environment where the best way to advance one’s career is to remain perpetually inoffensive to the establishment upon which plutocrats have built their respective empires. This is why you see ambitious reporters on Twitter falling all over themselves to be the first with a pithy line that advances establishment agendas whenever breaking news presents an opportunity to do so; they are aware that their social media presence is being assessed by potential employers and allies for establishment loyalism. This also why so many of those aspiring journalists attack Assange and WikiLeaks whenever possible.
“Everyone hoping to gain admission to the cultural elite must now strenuously cultivate their social media so as to avoid controversy,” journalist Michael Tracey observed recently. “Eventually they will internalize controversy-avoidance as a virtue, not a societal imposition. Result: a more boring, conformist elite culture.”
A great way for an aspiring journalist to avoid controversy is to never, ever defend Assange or WikiLeaks on social media or in any media outlet, and certainly under no circumstances allow yourself to look like the sort of journo who might someday publish the sorts of materials that WikiLeaks publishes. An excellent way to prove yourself is to become yet another author of yet another one of the many, many smear pieces that have been written about Assange and WikiLeaks.
Mainstream media outlets and those who thrive within them have no intention of rocking the boat and losing their hard-earned privilege and access. Conservative mass media will continue to defend the US president, and liberal media will continue to defend the CIA and the FBI. Both will help advance war, ecocide, military expansionism, surveillance and police militarization, and none will leak anything that is damaging to the power structures that they have learned to serve. They will remain innocuous, uncontroversial defenders of the rich and powerful at all times.
Meanwhile, alternative media outlets are defending Assange ferociously. Just today I’ve seen articles from Consortium News, World Socialist Website, Disobedient Media, Antiwar and Common Dreams decrying the persecution of the most important government transparency advocate living today. Alternative media outlets and independent writers aren’t bound by establishment servitude, so the value of WikiLeaks is clear as day. One’s eyes are only blinded to the pernicious behaviors of power when power is signing one’s paycheck.
Mass media outlets in America and around the world have fully discredited themselves with their failure to defend a publisher who actually holds power to account and brings facts into the light of truth to create an informed populace. Every day that goes by where they don’t unequivocally condemn any attempt to prosecute Assange is another day in the pile of evidence that corporate media outlets serve power and not truth. Their silence is a tacit admission that they are nothing other than stenographers and propagandists for the most powerful forces on earth.