Does Julian Assange have an agenda? We've heard the question so many times, usually asked by American media, whose agendas we are intimately familiar with. My answer, on reflection, is yes, I think he has one, and he has said what it is. And it's not what the big media people insinuate that it is, although that's not usually made very clear. If they think he has an inappropriate agenda, perhaps they should say specifically what they think it is, and back it up.
In this Sunday's interview on 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft asked if he is an activist. Assange said: "We are free press activists. It's not about saving the whales. It's about giving people the information they need to support whaling or not support whaling. Why? That is the raw ingredients that is needed to make a just and civil society. And without that you're just sailing in the dark."
That's a pretty good explanation of what journalism is about, imho. It's what I look for in journalism, and where I have expertise, it's what I strive for as well. And so often it's the problem with what American journalists do, they raise questions and then try to answer them with vital information missing. "Sailing in the dark," that's most of what we do, unfortunately.
In a four-part documentary that we included here on Scripting News, Assange said clearly that he wants to expose the truth about the war in Iraq. American news has not done a very good job of this, yet we have had to make huge decisions that determine the outcome of countries and the world's economy, without the information we need. It's also clear that Assange has helped. It's a pretty good agenda, imho. In the same interview he said he hoped that leaders would be more careful about what they do in the future, and that they would if they were sure that it would eventually come out. I think even a radical right-winger like Rush Limbaugh could get behind that. The problem is a lot of our media leaders aren't comfortable with this idea, apparently.
Another question that comes up is whether the release of WikiLeaks documents could be responsible for the deaths of innocent people. This is a question that must be asked of all news organizations, not just WikiLeaks. You can't avoid it. A responsible journalist tries to minimize the harm that comes from the publication of information, but it's not his or her responsiblity. A journalist's responsibility is to an informed readership. If that's not where their focus is, then they're in the wrong business.
However, this is what made my chin drop listening to Bill Keller on Fresh Air early this week. He responded to this question about Assange, without answering it himself. That's a big problem. (Terry Gross, his interviewer, should have answered it as well.)
Anyway, of course everyone has an agenda. Mine is to take another breath, and for my heart to keep beating. I have causes I believe in, and I like to live well, in comfort. That doesn't mean I can't do good work and have principles that I stand for.
Overall, it's an embarassment the way American journalists conduct themselves re Assange and WikiLeaks. We can easily see the contradictions and faked naivete in their questions. They must not care that we see it. Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes apparently doesn't understand how journalism works, because every question he asked of Assange called for a basic tutorial on American civics. Bill Keller would have us believe that you can practice journalism without taking risks, or that you can be a human being without offending some people. Please, can we stick to what's important. In the case of Assange, his socks, believe it or not, are an issue -- according to Keller. He doesn't like his socks. Help. Someone tell Keller that even a child can see through this.
The reason I write this now is that tomorrow evening I am supposed to see Keller tell this story -- and I don't know how I will be able to sit for it. Maybe by writing it in advance, it will somehow make its way to his desk, or to the desk of his interviewer, and he can address tomorrow's audience with a bit more respect than he did to the listeners of Fresh Air, or the readers of the NY Times Magazine. (I linked to the print version of the Times article because I found the graphic portrayal of Assange so offensive. I wonder if the Times would run a picture of Keller that was so defaced.)
Finally, i's not so much the way he treats Assange that I find offensive -- Assange is, amazingly, able to sit still and not show outrage at the childishness and hypocrisy of the insinuations. It's the way these people treat their audiences. It's as if we are uneducated and unintelligent. I remember a time when both 60 Minutes and the Times had too much dignity for that. Let's go back there, okay?