Commentary: Did New York Times bite the hand of WikiLeaks' Assange?

The Miami HeraldFebruary 15, 2011 

It’s the climax of the 1975 hit Three Days of the Condor. On a Manhattan sidewalk fugitive CIA analyst Robert Redford, having outgunned his assassins, confronts his double-dealing boss, who demands he join the sinister plot to control the world’s oil. No way, Redford says, he’s already blown the whistle. And the camera pans across the street where a truckload of newsprint is being delivered – to The New York Times. Game over.

Ahh, Hollywood. But what really happens when you’re a major league whistleblower? Say you’ve acquired sensitive documents of huge public importance, very hush-hush. Although it’s bound to annoy powerful people and may expose you to reprisal, you deliver them to the world’s mightiest news media, including The New York Times, which use them in sensational articles that have worldwide impact.

The Condor’s triumphant fourth day? Well, no. Sure you’ve handed over official secrets of global significance at considerable personal risk. That’s not enough. You’ve also got to be charming. Make sure your clothes are laundered and wrinkle-free. You may be living out of a backpack and pulling impossible hours culling data, but don’t forget to bathe regularly. And even if one of the organizations you’ve given this material to violates the conditions you set, don’t you dare get angry.

And know this: That every conversation you have with the reporters you’re working with, every snarky comment they make about you, every detail of your collaboration, may be used in a high-profile account of the whole affair that will portray you as a peevish, contemptuous, slouching, disheveled, foul-smelling, paranoid, self-serving, manipulative, volatile ideologue.

Those descriptors come more or less verbatim from the remarkable cover story by The New York Times’ top editor, Bill Keller, in the newspaper’s Jan. 30 Sunday magazine, titled “The Boy Who Kicked the Hornet’s [sic] Nest.” It is Keller’s 8,000-word version of his newspaper’s dealings with Julian Assange, the 39-year-old Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks, the worldwide online anti-secrecy network that last year provided The Times and other leading newspapers with a vast and extraordinarily rich trove of classified U.S. government documents.

Keller’s account is adapted from his introduction to a book the Times is publishing that reprints the stories that the newspaper published from WikiLeaks’ material, which Keller acknowledges was of “immense value.” Hence, first the Times got a series of exceptional stories about frontline military and diplomatic realities, and now it’s republishing those stories as a book that, no doubt, is destined for The Times’ best-seller lists.

So you’d have to say that Assange, on balance, has done well by the Times. He provided it with solid information, nothing spun, nothing fraudulent – its authenticity never, to my knowledge, even challenged – and he gave the Times plenty of time, as well as the editorial discretion, to use the material in whatever ways it deemed appropriate.

So why is Keller’s account so nasty? E-mails he received from reporters who worked closely with Assange – did they know they were writing for publication? – are quoted describing Assange “like a bag lady walking in off the street … He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.” Assange’s hours of unpaid labor are brushed by, yet when he’s angered after The Guardian of London, his principal media conduit, enlisted The Times for a later phase of the project despite Assange’s clear instructions to the contrary, he’s described as having “a tantrum.” Time and again he’s described with such terms as “arrogant, thin-spined, conspiratorial,” as given to “bombast and dark conspiracy theories.”

What gives? Since when is an honest source pilloried? You would have thought Assange had deceived the paper, like the trusted U.S. officials who in 2002 fed The Times garbage about an Iraqi nuclear program and helped dupe the United States into a murderous and needless war. When will a top Times editor publish an account that even names those sources, let alone belittles them for their wardrobes?

The Times let those lying dogs sleep, yet Keller, a journalist of unimpeachable accomplishment and stature, just had to trash a guy whose organization has struck the most powerful blow against official secrecy in a generation, somebody who may yet be jailed for what he did, an eccentric but unquestionably transformational media player.

Perhaps Keller’s institutional vanity was offended that Assange had suggested he was “the great puppet master of the news media”– an assertion never actually tied to Assange, but which the Times thought worth highlighting graphically in Keller’s story.

Maybe that explains Keller’s eagerness to distance his organization from WikiLeaks: They’re not like us. We’re careful and professional (and well-coiffed)? Perhaps it’s nothing more profound than rivalry.

After all, at the end of Three Days of the Condor, it’s Redford’s renegade boss who gets the last word: “How do you know they’ll print it?” Redford has no answer. Nowadays, he wouldn’t need one. We’d be reading the Condor’s files on WikiLeaks.

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