Monthly newsletter: May 2019

Is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a hero or a heel? Is Assange, currently in a British jail, a journalist who should be supported as a symbol of press freedom? Or is he a computer hacker who should be extradited to the United States and forced to stand trial for crimes, including theft of private information?

Assange elicits strong emotions on both sides of those questions, and I must confess, I am of two minds about him and WikiLeaks. The longtime journalist in me applauds some of what WikiLeaks has done, for example its disclosure of footage of a 2007 U.S. airstrike on Baghdad that killed Iraqi civilians and two Iraqi journalists with the Reuters news agency. WikiLeaks’ exposures over the years have provided countless news stories to mainstream media outlets.

At the same time, as a private citizen, I am troubled by an organization that sees no problem in publishing stolen, private emails. Social media platforms such as Facebook have been under fire lately over accusations of failing to properly protect users’ private information, yet many journalists seem to celebrate when WikiLeaks exposes the private emails and cables of government officials, diplomats, politicians, and business people.

Assange and his supporters are now wrapping themselves in the U.S. First Amendment, insisting that WikiLeaks is a media outlet and Assange is a publisher who should be guaranteed press freedom protections. But his detractors say Assange and his WikiLeaks crew are information anarchists, like digital terrorists of the Internet age who believe that all information should be public, regardless of the consequences.

I admit that I was once a fan of WikiLeaks, when I was a Washington Post correspondent and relied on some of their exposures, including leaked diplomatic cables, for my own stories. But my view of the organization soured when WikiLeaks in 2016 began publishing stolen emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, with the clear effect of interfering in the U.S. election, hurting Clinton’s campaign and helping elect Donald Trump as president.

Under criticism for publishing the Clinton emails, Assange defended himself in a November 2016 statement on the site, saying, “The right to receive and impart true information is the guiding principle of WikiLeaks,” and that with the Clinton email disclosures, “the real victor is the U.S. public which is better informed as a result of our work.” He called this “an open model of journalism that gatekeepers are uncomfortable with”.

But as to why WikiLeaks was only targeting Clinton in the midst of a closely contested election, Assange came up with this reasoning:  “At the same time, we cannot publish what we do not have,” he wrote. “To date, we have not received information on Donald Trump’s campaign…”

For me, therein lies the key problem with Assange and WikiLeaks. Those “gatekeepers” he maligns—meaning the traditional, mainstream media—serve an important purpose. For one, those gatekeepers strive for balance and fairness, particularly during heated election cycles. Also, the gatekeepers generally do not, as Assange does, publish everything they have and let the public sift through the data dump. Journalists vet the information. They often withhold information deemed sensitive that might unnecessarily endanger or malign innocent people or put lives at risk.

In other words, real journalists do not just publish all the information they come across, completely unfettered. They use that information to do real reporting, they make calls, they knock on doors, they talk to people, they look for context and background, and they write stories.

Data dumps serve a purpose, particularly to expose corruption, as with the Panama Papers, or when shedding light on the hidden corners that governments would rather keep secret for fear of embarrassment. But by my definition, WikiLeaks is no news organization. And Julian Assange is not a journalist.

Keith Richburg

Director of the JMSC