William McGowan: Adult supervision? @ The NYT? Part 5

William McGowan is the prominent journalist and author, most recently, of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. The book authoritatively covers the important and interesting subject suggested in its subtitle.

Glenn Reynolds hailed the book in the excellent lead review of the January 24, 2011, issue of National Review. Glenn wrote: “McGowan piles up incident after incident demonstrating beyond dispute that the New York Times of today is very different from, and far inferior to, the New York Times of a generation ago….[He] deploys the sheer repetitiveness of the problems as a way of making clear that they are systemic ones, not just the result of a few bad actors or bad decisions.” Numerous excerpts of favorable reviews are compiled here at the site for the book.

In a series of previous posts Bill has examined the Times‘s treatment of national security issues. In the concluding installment of this series he will also take a look at other issues of adult supervision at the Times. Bill’s examination of the Times‘s treatment of national security issues closes with this post today:

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Keller and Cablegate (cont’d)

The dubious parallel to the Pentagon Papers was not the only aspect of Wikileaks that the Times represented inaccurately or incompletely. Assange was much more than a “whistleblower” with a “glib antipathy to the U.S.,” as Keller phrased it. Wikileaks had much grander ambitions than to increase governmental transparency and to “expose wrongdoing,” as one early profile said.

Assange’s real aim was to reduce state power by “freezing” state communications. “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society,” he told Time. If leaks caused U.S officials to “lock down internally and balkanize” they will “cease to be as efficient as they were.” In one Unabomber-like manifesto, Assange wrote, “An authoritarian conspiracy” (i.e., the U.S.) that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve its powers.”

Also left shrouded was whether Keller considered Wikileaks a legitimate journalistic organization and whether the Times had entered into a “partnership” with Assange. Even after the Times reported negatively on Assange and the organizational unraveling of Wikileaks in October, the Times was running items in November echoing reporting by the New Yorker that Wikileaks was maturing as a news organization. In December, Keller himself said Wikileaks had “evolved.”

But Keller was adamant that there was no “partnering” between the Times and Wikileaks. Despite contrary evidence, Assange was merely a “source.”

Yet if not a full partner, Assange was certainly the bridge between the real “source” of the leaks, Pfc. Manning and the Times. And it had been Assange who selected what cables the news organizations would process. At points, he also functioned as an IT man, opening spreadsheets the reporters couldn’t. In essence, Assange was more of a “stringer” than a mere “source.” But this implied more institutional responsibility for Assange than Keller seemed willing to assume.

Keller’s diminishment of Assange might have stemmed from opinion polls showing between 60 percent and 70 percent of the American public thought the disclosures harmed US interests; in some surveys a majority thought those who published secret U.S. documents should be prosecuted. And in going after Assange, the government might charge the Times too.

Assange’s journalistic ethics and moral character factored into the distancing as well. Assange had doctored the “Collateral Murder” helicopter video and the “war logs” he posted had jeopardized pro-American Afghanis and Iraqis. He had violated his understanding with the Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel by bringing in Britain’s Channel Four (TV) without notifying them. And Assange’s new status as a “cult figure” of the European Left, in Keller’s phrasing, combined with the Swedish rape allegations, the silly “Spy vs. Spy” sunglasses and the “doomsday scenario” Assange had readied, straight from the cabinet of “Dr. Evil” himself, all cast aspersions on the Times‘s–and Keller’s–judgment.

As noted, Keller had begun to step back the paper from Assange in October, through the report on Assange’s egomania and Wikileaks’ organizational disarray. In mid-December at a Harvard forum Keller sniffed, “I don’t regard Julian Assange as a kindred spirit,” adding “If he’s a journalist, he’s not the kind of journalist that I am,” and that Wikileaks “was not my kind of news organization.” And at the National Press Club in February, Keller called Wikileaks “an advocacy group or a vigilante group.”

But Keller’s definitive disparagement of Assange came in long a January 26, 2011, New York Times Magazine article headlined “Dealing With Assange and the Wikileaks Secrets.” Keller wrote that the first impression Assange made on one Times reporter was “like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.” Assange was given to “yelling” and “crazy mood swings,” and started inexplicably skipping one night on the way to dinner. Times reporters “came to think of Assange as smart and well educated, extremely adept technologically but arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.” Keller said that a paranoid Assange was convinced that if he were imprisoned in the U.S. he’d be assassinated, “Jack Ruby style.”

In an obvious bid to minimize, Keller at one point wrote: “The idea that the mere publication of such a wholesale collection of secrets will make other countries less willing to do business with our diplomats seems to me questionable.” Frankly, Keller added, “I think the impact of Wikileaks on the culture has probably been overblown.” Keller also cited a blasé observation made in a Pentagon Papers affidavit filed by then Washington bureau chief Max Frankel who wrote: “When the government loses a secret or two, it simply adjusts to a new reality.”

Keller argued that criminalizing the publication of secrets “by someone who has no official obligation seems to me to run up against the First Amendment and the best traditions of this country.” Keller should have at least mentioned the Espionage Act, which prohibits the distribution of classified materials–even by someone who has “no official obligation”–i.e., him.

Esquire‘s Tom Junod wrote that Keller wanted “ethical distance” from Assange. When he climbed into bed with the Wikiman, Keller “made sure to wear a condom, manufactured from the impermeable rubber of his own distaste.”
A showdown between Keller and Assange came in early April at a panel discussion at U.C. Berkeley. The Times editor appeared in person; Assange was piped in, Oz-like, via Skype.

Keller joked that Assange “has had his revenge. We’re now destined to appear in panel discussions about Wikileaks.” But moderator Jack Shafer of Slate told Keller that his article’s pejorative descriptions had trivialized Assange. Keller got defensive. “We weren’t writing an academic report,” he shot back. “It was a story.” The descriptions of Assange were journalistic “color.”

Assange bored into Keller too. The reason the Times would not acknowledge him as a partner, he argued, was that the Times did not want to be charged under the Espionage Act.” That’s why The New York Times is careful to say this was not a collaboration,” Assange said. “What the Times is afraid of is that one man’s collaboration is another man’s conspiracy.”

Jack Goldsmith, a former Bush administration Assistant Attorney General, said at a Columbia University forum that the Justice Department was feeling a lot of pressure “from the top.” Justice would probably bring charges against Assange. But in the end, it would be unsuccessful.

Bill Keller is surely hoping Goldsmith is right, having acknowledged, “It’s very hard to conceive of a prosecution of Julian Assange that wouldn’t stretch the law to be applicable to us.” Yet Keller’s Times has suffered another blow to its reputation, and has again raised questions about its patriotism.

Lie down with Wikidogs and you can get up with fleas.

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