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January 20, 2012

The whistle blower as hero

Professor Lawrence Davidson

More by this author...

Part I - Robin Hood of the Information Age

Julian Assange, who might be the man most hated by the U.S. government, was given Australia’s Walkley Foundation Award for outstanding journalism recently. He accepted it from a distance, using Skype, because he is under house arrest in England pending extradition to Sweden. He is threatened with extradition because, curiously, the Swedish police have reopened a case of alleged rape against him that had been previously dismissed.

Assange is a kind of Robin Hood of the Information Age–purloining vital information from often-criminal governments, and distributing it to the information-poor citizenry. As a result he has become the hero of all those who would defy a media environment of government-warped news. And rightly so, for he and Bradley Manning are the first ones since 1971 (when Daniel Ellsberg and Neil Sheehan made public the Pentagon Papers) to defy U.S. government secrecy and reveal the official criminality committed in the names of its citizens.

Assange accomplished this feat back in November of 2010 when his Wikileaks website began the release of over 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Ever since then the U.S. government has been searching for ways to silence him and his web based operation.

To date, two approaches have proved effective:

1. The use of official pressure to shut down the avenues through which Wikileaks gets its financial contributions. These have been coming mostly through PayPal and other web based sources.

2. And tying Assange up with a rape charge that was active, then inactive, and now, lo and behold, is active again.

Part II - Corruption of the News Media

On 28 November, just days after receiving the Walkley Award, Assange addressed, again by Skype, the News World Summit in Hong Kong. Here he was blunt, and quite accurate, in his description of U.S. government behavior in relation to open access to information. "It is not an age of transparency at all" he said (perhaps alluding to President Obama’s unfulfilled pledge to promote "an unprecedented level of openness in government")...the amount of secret information is more than ever before."

For this Assange blames not just governments, but also the profession of journalism. In his opinion journalism has become "corrupted" by editors and reporters who value the prestige of being associated with important centers of power more than the uncensored practice of their craft. Such ambition does not allow the profession to hold those in power to account.

"There is a crisis of legitimacy within the mainstream press, a rightful crisis of legitimacy." For Assange, the consequences of this crisis are potentially catastrophic. "If the press doesn’t hold powerful corporations and governments to account then how can a democratic process work?"

Assange has a point. Yet historically, journalism’s record of keeping the powerful honest, and itself uncorrupted, is mediocre at best. In the United States, modern mainstream journalism has its roots in the shady reporting known as "yellow journalism." That refers to the exaggerations and outright lies that passed for news at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, such "journalism" did build up the distribution numbers, and thus the profitability, of the papers that practiced it. And often the consequences have been catastrophic.

One of yellow journalism’s most notable achievements was whipping up support for the Spanish American War. That is a role the press, and now the news media in general, has played over and again. At least at a national level, the muckraking alternative of honest expository journalism (think of the Watergate reporting of the Washington Post back in 1972) is the exception and not the rule.

Part III - The Complicity of Public Taste

Why is that the case? Well, just ask yourself how regional U.S. newspapers which run into financial difficulties reorganize the presentation of their papers. They put in more pictures, up the amount of entertainment "news," gossip and especially sports (lots of sports), favor local happenings and downsize national and international events. This is not really a conspiracy to keep us all stupid, though it might contribute to that end. It is a business decision based on market surveys that tell owners and editors what the customer prefers in his or her paper.

If you want to see a recent example of such a maneuver take a look at the comparison of TIME magazine covers at the website Common Dreams. Buy TIME’s upcoming December 5, 2011 issue in Asia, Europe or even in the South Pacific, and you will see an Egyptian protester on the cover with the title "Revolution Redux." Buy the U.S. version of the same magazine and you will see a silly little cartoon guy with the title, "Why Anxiety Is Good For You." That not only says something about how the editors and owners of TIME see their American readership, it also says a whole lot about the apparent tastes and interests of that readership.

The fact is that Julian Assange, and the rest of us who are interested in a truly free press, have run smack up against the fact that as long as we have a capitalist news media, we will also have an easily corruptible news media.

Just like any other capitalist enterprise, what such a press or media aims at is profit, and not factual accuracy. It also will follow the lead of its corporate owners and board of directors because that is what private enterprise prescribes. Just take a look at every media enterprise Rupert Murdoch owns.

Given this situation you will have a range of news organizations that fall out on something like a bell curve. Most of them will be middle of the road nonentities while on the extremes you will have right-wing and left-wing offerings. It is a sign of our times here in the U.S. that the right-wing media has taken a jump in popularity (witness Fox TV). 

That is not to say that what passes for press and media in the non-capitalist world is any sort of worthy alternative. It certainly is not. What is needed is a formula to create endowed, and therefore truly independent, news media. As Assange suggests this is a sine qua non of a free society.

Part IV– We Will Always Need The Whistle Blower

Most of the world’s population has only a minimal interest in what is happening beyond their local environment. That is why the market surveys noted above deliver the message they do.

Occasionally something comes over the hill and hits the locals in the head. That something thereby becomes both part of the local scene and demands explaining. The 9/11 attacks qualify as such an event. Originating from afar, how are the locals to understand it? They have no ready context in which to do so. So they listen to so-called "experts" from the government and media who they assume will give them the "truth." That is the only explanation most people ever get.

We have all seen where this leads us–right off a cliff.

When Julian Assange dumped those hundreds of thousands of documents onto the web he was saying "Here: you want the truth? It is somewhere in here. Let’s all take a look." Some did. Most did not. But the precedent he set sent shivers through the U.S. government as if it had caught an institutional flu. For this Assange is persecuted. That is the sort of world we live in. A world that will always need the whistle blower will always need a Julian Assange.

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