8 Smears and Misconceptions About WikiLeaks Spread By the Media
By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd and Tana Ganeva, AlterNet
Posted on December 31, 2010, Printed on January 4, 2011
The corporate media’s tendency to blare misinformation and outright fabrications has been particularly egregious in coverage of WikiLeaks. As Glenn Greenwald has argued, mainstream news outlets are parroting smears and falsehoods about the whistleblower site and its founder Julian Assange, helping to perpetuate a number of “zombie lies” — misconceptions that refuse to die no matter how much they conflict with known reality, basic logic and well-publicized information.
Here are the bogus narratives that keep appearing in newspapers and on the airwaves.
1. Fearmongering that WikiLeaks revelations will result in deaths. So far there’s no evidence that WikiLeaks’ revelations have cost lives. In fact, right before the cables were released, Pentagon officials admitted there were no documented instances of people being killed because of information exposed by WikiLeaks’ previous document releases (and unlike the diplomatic cables, the Afghanistan files were unredacted).
That’s not to say that the exposure of secret government files can’t somehow lead to someone, somewhere, someday, being hurt. But that’s a pretty high bar to set, especially by a government engaged in multiple military operations — many of them secret — that lead to untold civilian casualties.
2. Spreading the lie that WikiLeaks posted all the cables. WikiLeaks has posted fewer than 2,000 of the 251,287 cables in its possession. The whistleblower released those documents in tandem with major news outlets including the Guardian, El Pais andLe Monde, and used most of the redactions employed by those papers to protect the identities of people whose lives could be endangered by exposure. The AP detailed this process in a December 3 article, but this did not stop officials and pundits from howling that WikiLeaks “indiscriminately” dumped all the cables online. Much of the media mindlessly repeated the claim.
Greenwald and others have battled to kill the myth that the whistleblower site threw up all the cables without taking any precautions to protect people, but it keeps coming up. Just this week NPR issued an apology for all the times contributors and guests have implied or outright voiced the falsehood that WikiLeaks blindly posted all the cables at once.
3. Falsely claiming that Assange has committed a crime regarding WikiLeaks. The State Department is working really hard to pin a crime on Julian Assange. The problem is that so far he doesn’t appear to have broken any laws. Assange is not a U.S. citizen, he does not work for the U.S. government, and the documents WikiLeaks posted were procured by someone else. As Greenwald has repeatedly pointed out, it’s not against the law to publish classified U.S. government information. If it were, hundreds of journalists would be in prison right now.
While the government tries to conjure up a legal justification for prosecuting Assange, the media is helping out by fanning the narrative that he’s some criminal mastermind. Major outlets continue to host guests who accuse Assange of criminal behavior without quite specifying what his crime is. In a much derided CNN debate between Bush Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend and Glenn Greenwald hosted by Jessica Yellin, Greenwald had to repeatedly bat away the assertion that Assange has “profited” from “criminal” acts.
The effort to tar Assange as a criminal — spearheaded by government officials and helped along by the media — may have a chilling effect on future whistleblowers.
4. Denying that WikiLeaks is a journalistic enterprise. Public officials and pundits continue to claim that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic outlet, even though it procured the scoop of a decade. But much of what WikiLeaks does is identical to the activities of other news sources. WikiLeaks receives secrets from anonymous sources, which it then reveals to the public — news is nothing if not a checks and balances system for the government, a fundamental right of a free press. Secondly, it curates those secrets before revealing them — a journalist selecting relevant and appropriate material from a confidential document is not that different from WikiLeaks redacting certain parts of the cables.
Because WikiLeaks’ actions fall under the First Amendment, all journalists should be outraged if the American government attempts to prosecute. If WikiLeaks is prosecuted for conducting a journalistic enterprise, what rights will be stripped from journalists in the future? One of the most respected journalistic institutions in the world, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is speaking out. Earlier this month, 20 faculty members drafted and signed a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder saying that WikiLeaks’ prosecution will set a “dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity … Prosecution in the Wikileaks case would greatly damage American standing in free-press debates worldwide and would dishearten those journalists looking to this nation for inspiration.”
The Walkley Foundation, an institution of journalism in Assange’s home of Australia, put it more succinctly in its own letter of support for WikiLeaks: “To aggressively attempt to shut WikiLeaks down, to threaten to prosecute those who publish official leaks, and to pressure companies to cease doing commercial business with WikiLeaks, is a serious threat to democracy, which relies on a free and fearless press.”
5. Denying a link between Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks, despite Ellsberg’s support of the site. In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg secretly photocopied classified documents that proved the Johnson administration had lied to the American public about the chances of winning the Vietnam War, which it knew from the beginning were slim to none. By 1970, Ellsberg had become disillusioned with the desperate situation and began circulating the documents, first to U.S. senators, then to the New York Times, which reported the contents in a groundbreaking series of articles that set in motion the end to the war…and the Nixon administration. By doing so, he helped end an unjust war carried out in the name of the American people. His actions are widely heralded.
In a parallel scenario, WikiLeaks is acting the part of the Times and other outlets that reported the Pentagon Papers — releasing information of secret, and in many cases, unjust actions carried out in the name of the American people without our knowledge. Alleged leaker Bradley Manning is the Ellsberg in this situation; similarly, if chats between himself and Adrian Lamo printed in Wired are true, he unleashed the cables out of an overwhelming sense of justice, saying, “I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
Earlier this month, Ellsberg appeared on the Colbert Report and praised Manning. “If Bradley Manning did what he’s accused of, then he’s a hero of mine and I think he did a great service to this country,” said Ellsberg. “We’re not in the mess we’re in, in the world, because of too many leaks….I say there should be some secrets. But I also say we invaded Iraq illegally because of a lack of a Bradley Manning at that time.”
6. Accusing Assange of profiting from WikiLeaks. Newspapers this week led with reports that Assange has signed a lucrative book deal, information that inspired mainstream outlets like CNN to mock Assange for “profiting” from the cables despite his anti-corporate ideology. In the CNN interview mentioned above, Jessica Yellin asked Glenn Greenwald if he had “Any qualms about the fact that he is essentially profiting from classified information.” Greenwald pointed out that Assange is hardly profiting from the leaked materials, but rather trying to make a dent in the legal fees he’s accruing as governments around the world go after him. Greenwald also pointed out that trying to make money from journalism is pretty routine in the profession. Bob Woodward, for example, has written multiple books based on classified documents.
7. Calling Assange a terrorist. Last week Vice-President Joe Biden, part of an administration that’s overseen the escalation of the disastrous war in Afghanistan, joined Mitch McConnell and Sarah Palin in calling Assange a “terrorist.”
As far as we know, Assange’s leaks haven’t killed anyone. Nor has he threatened to perpetrate violence to promote a political agenda, the definition of terrorism. Nevertheless public officials continue to try to link Assange to terrorism in the public consciousness.
8. Minimizing the significance of the cables. Even though only a tiny fraction of the cables have been released, many critics promote the idea that they reveal “nothing new” and are therefore of no value. But even the cables released so far have contained important revelations about the U.S. and its allies.
Here are just a few of the stories revealed by the documents:
The promise that the next release will target a U.S. bank, and that it will have an effect similar to the Enron disclosures, according to Assange, certainly portends that the trove of information we haven’t yet seen could be explosive. And that is incredibly valuable to the American public.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites. Tana Ganeva is an AlterNet editor. Follow her on Twitter. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.