Media

Writhing over WikiLeaks

Julian Assange is no Daniel Ellsberg.

Writhing over WikiLeaks

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he continues to seek asylum following an extradition request from Sweden. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

One of the thorniest issues for a media analyst this political season is the continuous WikiLeaks dump of private emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Just about everyone desires transparency, at least reflexively. Just about everyone feels that a presidential candidate should reveal information rather than hide it, which is why Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns has become such a political burr. So why shouldn’t WikiLeaks head Julian Assange rip the veil off the Clinton campaign? Why shouldn’t voters know what transpires behind the closed doors of her campaign office? And there is another question, this one directed expressly to the general media: Why shouldn’t they be reporting upon these materials as they report on any other scrap of news?

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The antecedent that has been invoked is the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst at RAND, sneaked a copy of a classified Defense Department-commissioned study of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times and later to The Washington Post. Ellsberg’s purpose was to reveal that the Johnson administration knew the war was unwinnable, despite continuing to pour resources and, unconscionably, lives into the bottomless pit, and that the administration had lied repeatedly both to the American people and to Congress. In exposing the study and the classified documents it contained, Ellsberg and many others felt he had performed a public service.

Ellsberg released government documents, not the private communications of private citizens.

Assange’s supporters say the same thing about his Clinton dump. But the similarities end there. In the first place, Ellsberg released government documents, not the private communications of private citizens, which is what Assange is doing. Indeed, it is ironic that Edward Snowden was praised in some corners for revealing government surveillance of private citizens while WikiLeaks is now engaged in distributing the communications of private citizens. Moreover, as First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams has pointed out, Ellsberg deliberately held back the volumes on diplomatic efforts to end the war because he didn’t want to interfere with that process.

In the second place, it was incontrovertible that the Pentagon Papers, as The New York Times would put it, concerned a subject “of transcendent national interest and significance.” That cannot be said incontrovertibly about campaign emails, most of which focus on nuts and bolts and internal gossip. Curiosity and national interest are not the same thing. Not even close.

But there is another difference between Ellsberg and Assange besides the provenance of the documents. It is the source of transmission. Ellsberg and Assange are not equivalent actors. The equivalent to Ellsberg in the Clinton leaks is Russia. Whatever one thinks of Ellsberg — and I am sure there are many on the right who still regard him as a traitor — he was not an enemy agent trying to undermine the American system of government.

Whatever one thinks of Ellsberg … he was not an enemy agent trying to undermine the American system of government.

No one really knows the motives of the Russian hackers who have been fingered by the government with providing the emails to Assange, but one can certainly guess. The government believes they are most likely working at Vladimir Putin’s behest to delegitimize the American electoral system and abet Trump. This matters. The difference between Ellsberg and Russia is the difference between a whistleblower challenging policy and an enemy of the state disrupting our process — or put another way, between someone whose intention is to save the country and a group who want to subvert it. Russia has no interest whatsoever in anything but mischief.

Working in conjunction with the Russians and possibly with the Trump campaign, Assange (who, incidentally, has been accused of raping two Swedish women) has darkly hinted that he hopes to damage Clinton with his October surprises. This is his prerogative. He didn’t steal the documents himself. He is simply disseminating them, and anyone who wants to read Assange’s document dump can find them on the internet.

Even so, the Ecuadoran government, which has been hosting Assange at its London embassy for the last four years to avoid extradition on those rape charges, pulled the plug on his internet access on Tuesday. The reason Ecuador gave is a perfectly plausible one: Its government doesn’t interfere in foreign elections. Assange in retribution has been vaguely threatening to blackmail the State Department, the British government and Ecuador. To restate the obvious, Assange is no Ellsberg.

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This is where it gets sticky for the mainstream media. For them to report on the materials and give them wider circulation, barring some huge revelation that would rise to the level of the national interest and that would be as indisputably newsworthy as, say, the Pentagon Papers, is to further the devious ends of our Russian enemies. There is no good reason to report on them unless there is a very, very good reason. (Just about the only real news here may be the possibility of inappropriate collusion between the Clinton campaign and several super PACs, and that is something the mainstream media seem to have overlooked.) By behaving as if the national interest were immaterial, the media are encouraging the theft of private internal communications.

Like it or not, and as much as some readers may hate to hear it, we have no right to know what campaign officials are saying to one another, however much we might want to know — which is why I used the word “reflexively” earlier in referring to transparency. Private citizens, even those running for office, have the right to communicate among themselves, and making a story of those communications plays to prurient interest, not to the public interest. And, no, this isn’t the same thing as Trump’s private conversations in which he bragged of having committed sexual assault, which is a crime. Nor is it the same as media outlets calling for him to release his tax returns (something presidential candidates in the modern era have routinely done) because in Trump’s case, they might very well show entanglements that would compromise national security. Nor is there any equivalence with The Washington Post investigation of Trump’s foundation, which indicated that Trump not only seemingly lied about his contributions, but also that he may have engaged in impermissible activities.

Writing about the Clinton campaign’s emails is, however, the same thing as The New York Times releasing three pages of Trump’s tax returns, which did not indicate criminality or speak to anything other than public curiosity. We may want to know if Trump paid taxes. It may affect whether we want to vote for him or not. But let me repeat: We don’t have any right to this information, and he has no legal obligation to release it; only an ethical one.

There is no justification for the media to report on these documents.

So why the writhing? Just this: Whether or not we are entitled to know about them, whether or not they are the result of a foreign power’s skullduggery, whether or not they are being disseminated by a man who wants to wreck one candidate and help another, many of us have wished that Clinton release her speech transcripts on her own volition to give us a greater sense of how she speaks to financial interests. And given the public curiosity, one can certainly see how the media might have been confused into thinking they were serving some larger interest, even as they were serving as a bullhorn for this country’s sworn enemies and a presidential candidate, and even as they were shouting out documents they knew had been stolen by unsavory characters. They shouldn’t have been confused, but the media have changed a great deal since the Pentagon Papers. The ethical constraints are largely missing.

Let’s be blunt. There is no justification for the media to report on these documents. Now that WikiLeaks has outed Clinton, it turns out she had nothing to hide. As veteran Los Angeles Times political reporter Doyle McManus put it:

What’s most remarkable about this megaleak is that it’s yielded no real smoking gun. Even the most newsworthy quotes from her closed-door speeches to Wall Street firms often aren’t as damning in context as they may seem at first.

He might have added that they aren’t damning at all. What we discover is a cautious politician, a proud incrementalist and pragmatist, a progressive moderate and a woman who deeply believes in the efficacy of policy. In short, we discover that the Clinton behind those closed doors is exactly like the Clinton in front of them. Sorry, Mr. Assange.

Because she is cautious and paranoid, Clinton must have been terrified of how the Republicans and the media would distort her comments, which is precisely what they have done. To cite just one example, The New York Times’ Amy Chozick reported selectively on Clinton’s almost poignant description of her own middle-class upbringing and how she hasn’t forgotten it even as she now enjoys wealth. Then Chozick left out the “not forgotten it” part.

And I have already commented in an earlier post on the giddy hilarity that greeted Clinton discussing Abraham Lincoln’s political gamesmanship, and the grief Clinton took for being “two-faced” when she admitted the heresy that political negotiations often require some secrecy if they are to be successful. Then there’s the alleged smoking gun of Clinton discussing trade deals and her saying, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, sometime in the future…,” with the “sometime in the future” conveniently dropped as well as the fact that she was referencing trade, not immigration. The right wing naturally went nuts over this. And there’s the hostility that one staffer bore toward Chelsea Clinton for having the temerity to ask that a Clinton Global Initiative function be changed because it conflicted with the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur.

The sad, sad, sad fact is that the media are not sophisticated enough, nuanced enough or just plain smart enough to understand what Clinton is saying when she delivers what you might call political “mature-speak.” A bloviating showman like Trump they get. A wary pol like Clinton, not so much. Since they are in the entertainment business rather than the reporting business, they are experts in turning the soporific into the sensational, and Clinton’s WikiLeaks are definitely soporific.

So here is the bottom line:

  • The media shouldn’t be reporting upon the WikiLeaks both because they are private communications and because they were stolen by American enemies.
  • The media haven’t found anything of real national interest to justify handing the Russians, Assange and Trump a bullhorn they wouldn’t otherwise have.
  • The media should resist their penchant for hyping material that is intrinsically boring and pretending it is something it isn’t. That means you, Amy Chozick.

Yes, I want to know everything. But the media should know better than to feed that habit. They should know how to make distinctions between news and gossip. Back in 1971, they did. What has happened to them since?

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.