Assange Derangement Syndrome

Posted on January 6, 2011


This article by Vanity Fair on the relationship between Julian Assange and The Guardian is fairly close to decent–that is by the standards of other news coverage about Assange. It has some interesting revelations about the inner workings of the Wikileaks media partnerships, which, if true, can only broaden perspectives about the leaks, and about the future of other organizations and leakers, as well as the media’s role.

But what never ceases to surprise me, is the flat-out antagonism that writers seem to have for Assange. Since Sarah Ellion’s article is so-called “narrative” journalism, it relies on literary characterization to get its umph, but the fact that Assange ends up on the cutting end of that device more often than not is instructive of the level of sheer vitriol journalists seem to have for him:

–Assange was pallid and sweaty, his thin frame racked by a cough that had been plaguing him for weeks.

–Assange’s position was rife with ironies.

–One of the oldest newspapers in the world, with strict and established journalistic standards, joined up with one of the newest in a breed of online muckrakers, with no standards at all except fealty to an ideal of “transparency”

–The Guardian, like other media outlets, would come to see Assange as someone to be handled with kid gloves, or perhaps latex ones—too alluring to ignore, too tainted to unequivocally embrace.

–He affects a smilingly helpless air and until his arrest was notoriously elusive, sleeping on the floors and couches of sympathizers

That should be compared to the almost hagiographic treatment reserved for Alan Rusbriger, the editor of The Guardian. We learn that he is a classical pianist, is writing a book about Chopin, and runs a “democratic” newsroom. All of our information about his interaction with Assange comes from Rusbriger; for some reason, Assange is not interviewed for the piece.

Its just weird to me that so much of what we hear about Assange is about his  personal life, affectations or character flaws, and comes from characterizations of others. Meanwhile the private lives of those others, like The Guardian‘s editor, are never commented on. Why this double standard? Surely, the opini0ns of the comics editor and assistant accountant at The Guardian and The New York Times of their bosses are just as relevant. That is if there’s any relevance to such reporting at all.

But what’s more disturbing about this article is that Ellison didn’t interview Assange, and instead interjected her own manufactured versions of Assange commentary such as:

In contrast, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks disdain the notion that anything should come between the public and the vast universe of ostensible information you can evaluate for yourself, if only someone will let you. The ideal role of a journalistic outlet, in Assange’s view, is to be a passive conduit for reality, or at least for slivers of reality, with as little intervention as possible—no editing, no contextualizing, no explanations, no thinking, no weighing of one person’s claims against another’s, no regard for consequences.

Even a cursory view of Wikileaks activities over the past year show an organization, indeed, very concerned with consequences, and with a self-limiting strategy that seeks to hold media outlets accountable and diminish the effect of the kinds of claims the VF article lays against them as being flip anarchists. When faced with such information, however, the article lamely attributes such decisions to others, and Assange as a reluctant schemer, brought to the table by wiser heads:

WikiLeaks has not yet released its own large cache of raw diplomatic cables; what has been made public is largely limited to what the traditional news outlets decided to make public in their stories. It may be that Assange is simply holding material out, to make other deals.

Just where does all this antagonism toward Assange come from? I know that there some good theories floating around out there–overt sympathies with government actors, who are more often than not the sources for political articles in such outlets as VF, etc. But it really does seem like playa’ hating from over here.

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