"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism" - Hunter S. Thompson
Back in June of this year Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi penned an essential piece on the nature of journalism, advancing the view that all journalism is advocacy for someone (or something) and mocking the mass media conceit that it is 'unbiased'. This article arose from Taibbi's obvious annoyance with some media establishment figures who attacked Glenn Greenwald for committing the sin of openly practicing 'advocacy journalism' while claiming that they absolutely do not.
Over to Matt:
All journalism is advocacy journalism. No matter how it's presented, every report by every reporter advances someone's point of view. The advocacy can be hidden, as it is in the monotone narration of a news anchor for a big network like CBS or NBC (where the biases of advertisers and corporate backers like GE are disguised in a thousand subtle ways), or it can be out in the open, as it proudly is with Greenwald, or graspingly with [Andrew] Sorkin, or institutionally with a company like Fox.
But to pretend there's such a thing as journalism without advocacy is just silly; nobody in this business really takes that concept seriously. "Objectivity" is a fairy tale invented purely for the consumption of the credulous public, sort of like the Santa Claus myth. Obviously, journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that's all it is, striving.
He goes on to make the vital point that advocacy need not be intentional, and that a writer may not even be conscious of it in his/her work:
Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn't think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren't allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that's apology and advocacy. Any journalist with half a brain knows that the biases of our time are always buried in our coverage.
What is journalism? Most definitions cite both the preparation and dissemination of material in the public interest that may otherwise remain private. So, if some random guy in a bar tells you something 'in the public interest' that you did not previously know, does that make him a journalist? No, it does not, so clearly a journalist must work through some kind of medium that is openly declared to be dedicated to the dissemination of such information. This could also include individuals (citizen journalists) who work with the declared purpose of bringing relevant or important information to the attention of the public.
Clearly traditional media organizations like the New York Times and Der Spiegel serve this purpose, but what about blogs? Are bloggers journalists?
Yes they are, because they also disseminate information they believe to be useful and 'in the public interest' from a position of knowledge. Many blogs are excellent resources for information that may not be adequately covered in the mainstream media (MSM). They may make mistakes or provide erroneous information - far more likely as there are often no editors or fact-checkers to catch such errors - but this does not negate the fact that they are journalists; readers probably do not need reminding of the multiple 'errors' found in the reporting of many prestigious traditional media outlets in the run-up to the Iraq War...yet the writers of those articles are even now referred to as 'journalists'.
[Note: 'Blogs' here refers to news or information blogs, not personal diaries]
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein stated during the recent debates in the US on a 'shield' law for protection of journalists that the definition of journalism in the bill should only apply to those who make a salary. This begs the question: would a hypothetical NYT journalist, on waiving his salary for a year to aid his financially struggling newspaper, magically cease to be a journalist?
New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer also weighed in on the debate with his own brand of wisdom:
"The world has changed. We're very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn't be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we've ensured that. But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we're used to. They should not be excluded from this bill."
Here we come to the crux. Senator Schumer's phrasing is notably awkward, and the reason for this is simple: he is struggling to find words that disguise his true intent: he and his like-minded colleagues do not want to distinguish between entities that do and do not practice 'journalism'; rather they want a law that will protect the journalists they can control and permit prosecution of those they cannot.
Finding language that fits the definition you need in order to get what you want is nothing new in the political arena and mass media. Eric Blair himself wrote a celebrated essay on the topic that is all too relevant today. While the Feinsteins and Schumers of this world battle inconvenient enemies like linguistic semantics, the astute observer will see the whole charade for what it really is: yet another attempt to muzzle whistleblowers and those who enable their messages to reach the public. Money talks (and votes) as well: defenders of the NSA spying programs received twice as much defense and intelligence industry campaign money as opponents.
This relentless persecution invokes a certain ghost:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness... ...Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" - Joseph Welch to Senator Joe McCarthy.
One might ask why the likes of Senator Feinstein do not go after Glenn Greenwald for publishing the details of these top-secret programs? A few have attempted to suggest that Mr. Greenwald be arrested, and there has even been one smear attempt (slapped down with ease by its target), but the US government and media class have, in the main, restrained their attacks to catty character assassination. Nevertheless it is notable that the NSA files are designated top secret, and yet the Guardian is not targeted; nor is its editor-in-chief hounded into captivity or subjected to a sustained global media smear campaign: all suffered by Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
The answer lies partly in the methods Wikileaks employs to protect whistleblowers. While Edward Snowden knew his identity would inevitably be ascertained, Wikileaks uses cutting-edge cryptography to ensure that sources remain completely anonymous, their identities unknown even to the organization or any of its personnel. This methodology is obviously unacceptable to those in positions of authority with something to hide: if they cannot (mafia tactics alert) 'make an example' of whistleblowers, how will they be able to discourage other such people who follow their consciences in the future?
[Aside: This, of course, demonstrates the fundamental misunderstanding of human nature that authoritarians have and always will have: history shows that there will always be a special type of person willing to sacrifice their own lives for the good of society, and this will never change. The efforts of dishonorable, dishonest officials to intimidate and terrify potential whistleblowers into silence will inevitably have the opposite effect on those few true idealists like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. When a person feels something strongly enough, their very life becomes of secondary importance. This ineffable facet of the human spirit, this unquenchable bravery, is incomprehensible to the deeply shallow characters infesting the halls of power, people who view self-preservation and self-enrichment as the only worthy goals in life.]
That Wikileaks represents journalism in its purest form is clear from the aggressive reaction of the establishment. Any story about Wikileaks or its editor-in-chief attracts large numbers of reader comments. While astroturfers are attracted to the fray like sharks to blood, countless misconceptions and outright lies are regurgitated by large numbers of other posters for public display. Given that the propaganda playbook (focus public attention on the messenger to distract from the story) has been thrown at Wikileaks and Julian Assange in particular, this is hardly a surprise. Every article must contain the obligatory 'rape allegations' line and even respected newspapers like the Guardian, which produces so much fine reporting on other issues, churns out error-strewn pieces which are often outright smears.
For this reason it never hurts to remind people of some facts about Julian Assange and Wikileaks:
1. Wikileaks is a not-for-profit organization that depends on donations for its survival and operation.
2. Julian Assange and Wikileaks have received numerous prestigious awards for journalism, including the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism and the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.
3. Mr. Assange has been officially recognized (pdf) as a journalist by the UK High Court.
4. Wikileaks does not dump information indiscriminately online. Careful redaction to protect personal identities is carried out. [Note: The dump of the diplomatic cables occurred when David Leigh, a Guardian journalist, negligently and recklessly published a password despite being expressly told to keep it secret.]
5. One common criticism is that Mr. Assange should 'face justice' in Sweden. However:
From a Wikileaks FAQ (see original for sources):
Assange’s offers to be questioned over the sexual misconduct allegations made against him have repeatedly been turned down by Swedish authorities. When the allegations were made in August 2010, Assange stayed in Sweden for five weeks for the purpose of answering them. He was then given permission to leave by Swedish authorities and travelled to the U.K. Assange’s subsequent offers to be interviewed at Scotland Yard and the Swedish Embassy in London were rejected by Sweden. Sweden also rejected the government of Ecuador’s invitation to interview Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
If extradited to Sweden, Assange could be quickly and secretly sent on the U.S through the temporary surrender provision in the extradition treaty between those two countries. Assange has repeatedly agreed to go to Sweden to answer the allegations on the condition that the Swedish government agree not to extradite him on to the United States. Sweden has consistently refused, including when requested to provide such an agreement by the government of Ecuador.
Swedish authorities broke their own laws by leaking to the press that Assange was wanted for rape, without informing Assange.
Within hours there were millions of web-site hits for “Assange” + “rape”.
A rape allegation against Assange was initially dropped, deemed so weak as to not warrant investigation.
The rape allegation was reinstated after intervention by a Swedish politician, Claes Borgstrom, who is well-connected to U.S politicians.
One of Assange’s accusers was so upset that police were going to pursue a rape allegation against him that she did not sign her interview statement.
In November 2010, Interpol issued a Red Notice for Assange’s arrest, despite the fact that U.K police and Swedish authorities knew of his whereabouts. In contrast, an Orange Notice was issued for Colonel Qaddafi.
The treatment of Assange stands in stark contrast to the treatment by governments of men accused of similar offenses.
This page here sets out the philosophy and goals of the organization.
The profit motive of the corporate media ensures that Wikileaks, a non-profit organization, will always be a purer form of journalism. When Wikileaks receives information (note: which it does not solicit), it investigates the documents as far as possible to determine its authenticity and newsworthiness. When it is satisfied that the information is authentic and within the public interest, its staff write an accompanying news story (in the neutral, factual style employed in Wikipedia articles) in order to describe the release and its significance. The raw source material is also made freely available for public viewing so that readers may check for themselves.
Compare this with the methodology of the corporate media. News stories go through an editorial process which acts like a prism. Information that the media organ deems worthy of print gets through, yet much does not. Major factors in determining whether a story reaches the outside world include how much interest is likely to be shown by the public, and also whether an article presents potential harm to the interests of their advertisers. These considerations are a direct cause of sensationalism, exaggeration, slanting of news to put 'friendly' powers in a good light, and omission of information that is in the public interest. Slanting and omission are particularly devastating as they can lead potentially to millions of people having an erroneous or confusing impression of a serious issue: the so-called 'Benefits Britain' smearing of the poor and disabled in the UK media stands out as a particularly egregious example.
Wikileaks does what it says on the tin. Voluminous evidence demonstrates that most traditional forms of media, in myriad ways, do not. With notable exceptions, the true adversarial journalism practiced by Wikileaks is rare nowadays. In order to ensure a bright torch is kept constantly on the activities of demonstrably corrupt officials and those working behind them, transparency organizations like Wikileaks need your support. And if you have any doubts about the motives of Julian Assange, ask yourself why he has been hounded into captivity, kept in limbo, and smeared mercilessly throughout the corporate media. There is only one possible explanation for that.
Written by Simon Wood
Follow Simon Wood on Facebook and at his blog.
Bitcoin donations are now gratefully accepted:
Note: Due to spam, only members of this blog can now comment. If you wish to make a comment and would like it published, please contact me via Twitter and I'll sort it out.