The Nation: Behind Assange's Feud With The 'Times'

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange i i

hide captionWikileaks founder Julian Assange speaking to the press after appearing in court in London, England. Relations between Julian Assange and the New York Times, which worked heavily with Assange to publish leaks, have gone afoul as of late.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaking to the press after appearing in court in London, England. Relations between Julian Assange and the New York Times, which worked heavily with Assange to publish leaks, have gone afoul as of late.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Greg Mitchell writes the Media Fix blog for TheNation.com.

As many know, Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, wrote a piece for his paper's Sunday magazine this past week (actually it's just an extract from their new book) critical of Julian Assange, even mocking him. WikiLeaks (presumably Assange) quickly called it a smear in a tweet and there was much made of the falling out between the paper, one of WikiLeaks' media partners since last June, and Assange. Yet today, on NPR, Keller gave credit to WikiLeaks for fueling the recent revolt in Tunisia (and by extension, Egypt).

So what sparked the rift with Assange?

For one thing, Assange was upset that the Times refused to link directly to the WikiLeaks site. Then there was a shaky profile last summer of Bradley Manning. But In this third excerpt from my new book The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate, we look at the prime offense, as seen by Assange: the now fabled front-page story that appeared last October.


As it had promised, The New York Times, the day after the release of the megaleak on Iraq, published a lengthy profile of Assange on its front page, written by John Burns (left) and Ravi Somaiya, and including the interview with the WikiLeaks leader over lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant in London the previous week. During that sitdown, when asked about finances and other non-content issues, Assange had responded by calling such queries "facile," "cretinous," and from "kindergarten."

Even though the same newspaper had collaborated with WikiLeaks on its most recent two megaleak packages, and was still covering the latest one heavily, this profile was notable for its harsh tone and criticism of Assange, such as this:

— "Now it is not just governments that denounce him: some of his own comrades are abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood."

— "Several WikiLeaks colleagues say he alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops. 'We were very, very upset with that, and with the way he spoke about it afterwards,' said Birgitta Jonsdottir, a core WikiLeaks volunteer and a member of Iceland's Parliament. 'If he could just focus on the important things he does, it would be better.' "

"The New York Times spoke with dozens of people who have worked with and supported him in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, Britain and the United States. What emerged was a picture of the founder of WikiLeaks as its prime innovator and charismatic force but as someone whose growing celebrity has been matched by an increasingly dictatorial, eccentric and capricious style."

— "When Herbert Snorrason, a 25-year-old political activist in Iceland, questioned Mr. Assange's judgment over a number of issues in an online exchange last month, Mr. Assange was uncompromising. 'I don't like your tone,' he said, according to a transcript. 'If it continues, you're out.' "

Assange, at the Frontline Club in London, quickly responded to the piece this way: "It's a smear piece, and more tabloid behavior by the Times. Is it that only journalists with bad character work for the Times?" He said his objections to the Times's coverage included its "absolutely disgusting" profile of Bradley Manning back in August, which had "removed all higher-level political motivations from him and psychoanalyzed him down to problems in his childhood and a demand for attention. He later protested the tone of the new piece directly to Times editor Bill Keller and asked for a chance to respond in a significant way.

The following day, Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com jumped on fresh attacks on Assange from the press. The low point "of this smear campaign," he wrote, "was led by the New York Times's John Burns, who authored a sleazy hit piece on Assange — filled with every tawdry, scurrilous tabloid rumor about him….

"It shouldn't be surprising that Burns is filling the role played in 1971 by Henry Kissinger and John Ehrlichman. His courageous and high-quality war reporting from Iraq notwithstanding, it's long been clear from his U.S.-glorifying accounts that Burns was one of the media's most enthusiastic supporters of the occupation of Iraq…. The Iraq War is John Burns' war, and for the crime of making that war look bad, Julian Assange must have his character smeared and his psychiatric health maligned…. Richard Nixon and his plumbers could have only dreamed about being able to dispatch journalists to dutifully smear whistle-blowers in this manner…" What makes Burns's role here all the more ironic is that he was one of the media ringleaders who attacked and condemned Michael Hastings for revealing, in Rolling Stone, the truth about the mindset of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was running America's war in Afghanistan.

"So when it comes to top Generals running a war, it's the duty of reporters to conceal from the public statements made by the General, even when they're not off-the-record and even when they're clearly relevant.… But when it comes to people like Julian Assange — who are not prosecuting American wars but exposing the truth about them (which is supposed to be a journalist's job) — no such discretion is warranted. There, everything is fair game, including posing as an amateur psychiatrist issuing diagnoses of mental illness and passing on the most scurrilous accusations about personality, character and psyche.

"None of this is to say that WikiLeaks and Assange shouldn't be subject to scrutiny. Anyone playing a significant role in political life should be, including them. But Julian Assange's personality traits have absolutely nothing to do with the infinitely more significant revelations of this leak."

John Burns responded to Greenwald, and many other critics of his piece, two days later in an interview with Michael Calderone of Yahoo! He complained that he could not "recall ever having been the subject of such absolutely relentless vituperation" following a story in his thirty-five years at the Times. This included e-mails from academics at Harvard, Yale, and MIT. Some, he said, used "language that I don't think they would use at their own dinner table."

The Assange profile, Burns said, was "an absolutely standard journalistic endeavor that we would use with any story of similar importance in the United States." Burns said he spent parts of three months on the story and, along with colleagues, spoke with more than thirty sources who had some association, past or present, with WikiLeaks. He added that the Times is "not in the business of hagiography" but in the "business of giving our readers the fullest context for these documents" and "Assange's motivations."

Greenwald at his blog would respond: "Apparently, many people become quite angry when the newspaper which did more to enable the attack on Iraq than any other media outlet in the world covered one of the most significant war leaks in American history — documents detailing the deaths of more than 100,000 human beings in that war and the heinous abuse of thousands of others — by assigning its most celebrated war correspondent and London Bureau Chief to studiously examine and malign the totally irrelevant personality quirks, alleged mental health, and various personal relationships of Julian Assange. Imagine that."

And: "What Burns did to Julian Assange is most certainly not a 'standard journalistic endeavor' for the New York Times. If anyone doubts that, please show me any article that paper has published which trashed the mental health, psyche and personality of a high-ranking American political or military official — a Senator or a General or a President or a cabinet secretary or even a prominent lobbyist — based on quotes from disgruntled associates of theirs. That is not done, and it never would be."

Excerpted from Mitchell's The Age of WikiLeaks, available here.

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