The New York Times Gets a Head Start on Its Assange Smear Campaign: Updated 1, 2, 3

Posted on October 23, 2010


The US major papers of record have yet to fill their opinion pages with supposition, slander and rumor concerning Wikileaks and its most visible representative, Julian Assange. That’s for the week to come. But the New York Times has already gotten a head start in its news pages.

First, careful not to anger the hallowed personages at the Defense Department that make up the core of the paper’s treasured sources, they printed the Defense Department’s denunciation of the leak in full.

Then, beating the rush, they published the first official smear piece of the Iraq leak which appears in today’s electronic New York Times, and will be front page news in the Sunday edition tomorrow. The article is a monument to toady rumor-mongering and reputation-trashing. The hit piece, “Wikileaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety” should be read in its entirety to really be appreciated for its disgusting attempts to tar Assange as a wild-eyed paranoid fame-seeking dilletante, and as a perfect example of how quickly and efficiently the paper goes after opponents of official Pentagon policy. I’ve written about this before in regard to the paper’s assault on Bradley Manning, and there are some important similarities.

The article is rife with unnecessary qualifications of Assange, mentioning a supposed “unsettled childhood” and “delusional grandeur”. The latter is an almost word for word replication of the paper’s charges against Manning, whose “friends say” had “delusions of grandeur”. The main thrust of that article was Manning’s putative troubled childhood, a concern echoed in the extremely unnecessary comment about Assange’s childhood. Consistently, the paper uses such terms as “imperious”, “dictatorial”  and “eccentric” to describe Assange.

In the same way, the NYT creates the appearance that it has special access to people close to Assange; it does so by constantly referring to its named sources as “closest collaborators” (twice) and “comrades” and “fellow conspirators”, though Assange claims that they are not and the NYT provides no evidence or rubric for determining the centrality of its informants. Of course, the NYT dredges up a rape allegation in Sweden, though the arrest warrant for Assange was dropped, and only re-opened after a prosecutor had already dismissed the charges as baseless. The timing of the charge, just as Assange was applying for Swedish residency is also suspect, though the NYT is only interested with malfeasance if it enables their tarring of Assange.

Are these allegations about Assange’s personal life and executive style true? I certainly don’t care. Assange might even be a sheep-shagging drunk who pees on the sacristy on Christmas, dresses like Hitler on Purim and barbecues pork on Fridays. I don’t care about his personal life, his managerial style, his attitude or his sex life anymore than I wonder about how John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya, the authors of the article, are spoken of by people who claim to be their closest confidants. I don’t care if they’re having an affair with the paper’s editor, hired prostitutes to do them dressed as Stalin, snorted coke on their laptops or yelled at their children, parents or partners while downloading kiddie porn before writing this puerile hit piece—yes, their “closest collaborators” may or may not say such things about them, but that’s not my concern.

The content of the garbage they wrote is what damns them in my eyes, not what people who claim to be friends of theirs say happened sometime somewhere with someone else. Imagine that.

Update 1:

Todd Gitlin, in The Whole World is Watching, notes some examples of NYT reporting on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the sixties, which, IMO, seem to parallel current NYT coverage of Assange. Gitlin describes a similar effort to paint SDS as comically saddled with “delusions of grandeur” and undermined  by fractures more likely invented by the reporters than found within the organization. The opening paragraph of this piece:

Julian Assange moves like a hunted man. In a noisy Ethiopian restaurant in London’s rundown Paddington district, he pitches his voice barely above a whisper to foil the Western intelligence agencies he fears.

Rivals the mocking tone of the New York Times piece on SDS in 1965:

The executive secretary of Students for a Democratic Society climbed on a picnic table today and addressed more than 300 delegates to the organization’s annual convention on its third day…

The piece goes on to describe a discussion of the bad quality of food at the convention, and then notes:

This exchange…illustrates a major problem for Students for a Democratic Society, an organization that has taken a leading role n the movement known as the new student left.

It’s the same smarmy, condescending strategy that the New York Times has been emanating at any voices challenging the conventional wisdom espoused by the NYT’s prized sources in the Defense Department and White House for nigh three generations–from Vietnam, to Desert Storm, to Seattle and beyond. This approach is obsessed with infantilizing such groups and individuals, hence the concern with Manning’s and Assange’s childhood, and the juvenile portrayal of Assange. As Gitlin noted…

…the unifying tone is ridicule…interspersing laughable physical details among pieces of SDS program, conveying the impression that SDS’s ambitions were absurd.

trivialization and the attribution of menace are not such different frames of reference as they may appear to be. Far from being mutually exclusive, they are alternating expressions of a more fundamental notion…the deviant other. The marginality and menace themes were united by a subterranean logic: they were conjoint ways of evading the substantive political challenge proposed and embodied by the New Left.

Like the old NYT reporting on the SDS convention, this piece also creates a juicy political tale of intrigue out of unrelated details and garbled recounting of issues and problems, using quotes selectively and filling in the gaps with invented narrative to tell a unified tale of intrigue. Assange, like the old SDS, is both dangerous and comical, and by all means totally not someone you should listen to at any cost.

Update 2:

Assange walked out of an interview yesterday with CNN, after he repeatedly told Atika Shubert that he wanted to focus on the content of the leaks, not his personal life and anonymous complaints by putative “staffers”.

Assange rightly quizzes Shubert about who these “staffers” were, since only one “staffer” has quit. Does anyone who ever had an exchange with Assange now get to call themselves a “staffer” and central figure in the Wikileaks organization?

On another note, I wonder if Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. gets this kind of scrutiny every time someone quits or is fired from the NYT. I bet there’s quite a few disgruntled former employees of the NYT in this era of rapid journalistic downsizing, from the janitors to veteran reporters, who have some unflattering things to say about Sulzberger’s managerial style and personal qualities. For some reason, those people aren’t taken seriously.

Here’s the original CNN link.

Update 3:

Last update, I swear (fingers crossed). How funny is Shubert’s concern that the attention being paid to Assange’s personal life is “eclipsing the work of Wikileaks”? Nothing is more darkly humorous than the rumor-mongerers of the personality-obsessed mainstream media criticizing an anti-establishmentarian figure because their personal life is getting in the way of substantive political issues. As asinine as it appears to those who’ve observed this dynamic again and again through the years, they still can’t get enough of it. It’s the equivalent of a drunk driver chastising sober drivers for not being cognizant enough that there’s drunk drivers on the road.