"News is something someone doesn't want printed. All else is advertizing.” - William Randolph Hearst
Those following the saga of Julian Assange, the founder (also editor-in-chief) of the transparency organization Wikileaks will be well aware of the long-running feud with the UK's Guardian newspaper. Initially partners in the explosive release of US diplomatic cables in 2010, the two suffered a very public falling-out. The period since then has been characterized by smear after hit piece after smear, and given that The Guardian's website is one of the most visited news sites in the world with millions of unique visitors every day, any misleading or negative article on Mr. Assange or his organization is certain to adversely influence public opinion on an enormous scale.
The smear is the standard response of establishment figures and entities to anyone who seriously challenges or stands outside the sphere of mainstream media orthodoxy, and it is nothing new. It serves both as a means of distracting from the points made by the target of the smear and of simultaneously skewing public perceptions against the 'outsider' and reinforcing those for the establishment. It does not require a conspiracy to effect, simply a self-reinforcing media culture of mutual praise and backslapping with unwritten laws regarding treatment of certain public figures (including other journalists), leading to descriptions of controversial establishment politicians like Tony Blair with 'nuanced' language while high-profile opponents of mainstream Western ideology like Hugo Chavez are labeled 'firebrands', 'dictators' and 'self-styled' 'revolutionaries'.
Smearing is extremely effective, and the proof of this lies in open view. Julian Assange has been called pretty much every name under the sun by journalists eager to ensure that their colleagues (and readers) know that they absolutely conform to the standard view of the Wikileaks founder as a 'narcissist', '(alleged) rapist', 'attention-seeker', 'trouble-maker' etc. etc. Thanks to this almost daily smearing by high-profile journalists and other figures, along with astroturfing techniques such as using sock-puppet accounts on Twitter and posting multiple comments on popular news sites, there is now a situation where millions of people around the world, most of whom are profoundly indifferent to political issues or media transparency, believe that Mr. Assange is a very naughty boy indeed, 'holed up' in the Ecuador embassy because he is a 'coward' who will not face his accusers in Stockholm.
That this, along with multiple other claims disseminated in countless media outlets and through the astroturfers' echo chambers, is actually a blatant falsehood speaks volumes about the need for reform of the dysfunctional media culture we are all forced to suffer twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
In most cases, the best response to smears is to ignore and refuse to engage the smearer, as that feeds into their desire to distract from the points being made by the target of the smear. However, it is occasionally useful to confront (in the form of a responding article or open-letter) smears when something comes along that is so disgustingly and offensively false that it highlights all that is wrong with corporate media group-think.
The Guardian today published a piece by Marina Hyde entitled: "Please-take-Assange-to-Stockholm syndrome. It's the diplomat's disease". In this piece, the final tattered remains of the Guardian's credibility on this particular issue were blasted into nothingness as Ms. Hyde proceeded to smear Mr. Assange with unsupported claims, ad-hominem attacks upon his character and credibility, and omissions of vital details. It is particularly disappointing that Ms. Hyde has resorted to this form of gutter journalism as she has demonstrated herself to be a gifted, intelligent and thoughtful writer on many other issues in the past. That her blind spot is finally revealed in her treatment of Mr. Assange is no accident: merely another symptom of the media culture that strongly discourages dissent on the issue of identified enemies.
It is illuminating to dissect some of the comments made by Ms. Hyde:
The poor Ecuadorian ambassador. After months with Julian Assange, she'll have had quite enough of insufferable narcissists
A blinding start to the piece - the subheading, no less - in which Ms. Hyde utilizes a vicious personal attack in a statement that is not supported by any evidence.
I've half a mind to rush out a very bad play set in a fictional version of that most claustrophobic-sounding embassy, in which everyone from cleaner to ambassador is driven to wielding the knife on perhaps the most rapidly oxidising figure of the age.
Translation: Mr. Assange is such a dick that anyone spending a significant amount of time with him would be filled with the desire to murder him. On reflection, it may well be worth Ms. Hyde spending the time on writing said play as there is little doubt that it would be heavily promoted by the Guardian in order to make more money out of the plight of Mr. Assange. As an aside, it is particularly telling that the book 'Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War On Secrecy' written by two Guardian journalists, David Leigh and Luke Harding, is prominently advertized near the top of the piece. Classy: many of the senior Guardian staff clearly hate Assange's guts, but they're certainly not beneath using their platform to make as much cash out of him as they can.
The work, if you could call it that, would be a rather farcical sort of tragedy, for who in all seriousness can continue to suppress the odd smirk at the thought of Assange, holed up with his sunbed and his computer and his radioactive self-regard...
Indeed - there is little doubt that sociopaths everywhere, encouraged by lies and smears propagated relentlessly by media organs, would have a bit of a chuckle at the thought of a man never charged with any crime being deprived of his freedom, possibly for the rest of his life, for publishing information that showed the mind-boggling criminality of nation states and corporate entities. Yes, I do believe my sides are splitting.
It's been a while since we heard from the Ecuadorian ambassador, initially so keen on her houseguest, but it is difficult not to read between the lines of Her Excellency's November suggestion that Assange must be allowed to leave for medical treatment, and not wonder whether by then she had the terminal ministrations of an NHS geriatric ward in mind.
The actual comments of the Ecuadorian ambassador were accessible via a hyperlink, which Ms. Hyde no doubt knows most readers do not follow, with most lacking the time, or simply not caring enough, to check every source and therefore far more likely to take a writer's comments in good faith.
The ambassador actually said:
"He has a chronic lung complaint that could get worse any time. The Ecuadorean state is covering Mr Assange's medical costs and we have arranged for regular doctor visits to check on his health(,)"
This is a simple statement of facts with no implication whatsoever that Mr. Assange has outstayed his welcome. Indeed, if anything, the ambassador's concern about his health is the most obvious feeling conveyed here.
Eventually the embassy staff may be revealed as suffering from a perversion of Stockholm syndrome, when those doing the house arresting fall so deeply out of love with their victim that the only cure is to extradite him to the Swedish capital.
Before we go any further, I'm warned that any criticism of Assange will land me in the doghouse with those somehow still able to take him 100% seriously, and may even cause a section of commentators to suspect I am part of some Guardian plot against him.
Getting the justifications in early for disgusting and unfounded personal attacks is always a good tactic and Ms. Hyde does not disappoint. She also reinforces the now prevailing media view that anyone who harbors sympathy for the plight of Mr. Assange is a 'cultist' or 'disciple', incapable of independent thought or anything beyond a worldview stipulated by the cultist-in-chief himself. It is a cowardly, passive-aggressive smear upon the millions of people who actually believe Wikileaks has done the public a great service, indeed the very same service that Ms. Hyde and her colleagues themselves should be providing, and that Mr. Assange is paying for his temerity of standing up to the US. She also misses the point that in fact many Wikileaks supporters do indeed have several concerns both about the organization and its founder, concerns that they would prefer to be debated honestly and openly in a neutral, informative media.
You see, I am dimly aware of all sorts of articles about this newspaper's break-up with Assange, but I have to confess to not being abreast of their import. I do look at the headlines and make quarter-arsed mental notes to read them later in order to stay au courant, but the inelegant truth of it is that I never do because it just sounds like such an absolutely massive bore-off.
Here Ms. Hyde displays her impeccable journalistic principles in agreeing to write an article about Mr. Assange while candidly admitting she does not know the details of important aspects of the background. As anyone familiar with the facts of the Assange case knows, the devil really is in the details, and many of the comments with misconceptions and false impressions one reads below the line in comments threads, whether from astroturfers or not, are written as a direct result of total ignorance of the true facts of the case. Modern media does not do details well, as details do not attract casual readers who want only the headline and basic outline of stories before moving on to the next drama in their busy lives. For a journalist to write on such an important issue, 'humor' piece notwithstanding, while admitting ignorance is simply shameful.
Assange ... the very name seems a sledgehammer hybrid of ass and angel, and with each balcony scene or face-saving desertion of a celebrity supporter, whichever CIA mastermind conceived Julian in a petri dish must be rubbing his hands with glee.
This speaks volumes about the journalistic integrity of the writer. While it is obviously her idea of humor, it once again relies on nothing but obvious and outright contempt for the subject of the 'joke'.
Quite where his narrative arc now goes is unclear. I suppose he might attempt to shoot his way out of his Knightsbridge bolthole like one half of Butch and Sundance, perhaps using a weapon fashioned from bits of his sunlamp and a USB stick. (It's certainly something The A-Team would have been able to come up with had they been holed up there for even an afternoon.) Certainly, if the attention continues to wane, the tractor-beam of the limelight will become harder to resist, and we should expect what Assange imagines to be the unexpected.
Translation: Mr. Assange has sacrificed his freedom and risked his life because...he wants attention. Congratulations, Ms. Hyde: you are now a certified propagandist.
"...but facts are sacred."
If one subscribes to the view that only an ultimately insufferable narcissist could have had the balls to do what he did, then it was always going to come to this. But when so very few come out of a story well, from star to supporters, perhaps a mirthless laugh is the only option left.
It is hard to fathom this sociopathic need to ridicule and demean a man who millions believe to be unjustly imprisoned and who has been granted asylum by a respected sovereign nation. No doubt Ms. Hyde would defend her comments, citing the fact that her columns almost always contain caustic humor. Indeed, in other pieces, Ms. Hyde has demonstrated real wit and an ability to comment very cleverly. However, there is nothing in this piece but downright nasty and mean-spirited bashing of a man already beaten down by demonstrably corrupt powers. Clearly the very British pastime of supporting the underdog does not extend to serious critics of Western foreign policy and the behavior of trans-national corporations.
Before you ask why the author of this article is writing in support of an alleged rapist, it might be a good idea to check the facts of the case. When one does, one finds the inconvenient reality that neither of the women involved actually wanted to press charges for rape, but in fact wanted to know whether Mr. Assange could be forced to take an HIV test. In fact, both women in their own words said the sex was consensual. From the linked article:
The fact that the sex was consensual in all of the events is not disputed. One of the complainants, AA (Expressen, 21 August 2011), stated that both she and SW had consensual sex with Assange.
Complainant AA’s statements to the tabloid Aftonbladet (21 August 2010) also deny criminal intent on Assange’s side or threat/use of force.
"It is completely false that we are afraid of Assange and therefore didn’t want to file a complaint. He is not violent and I do not feel threatened by him." - Complainant AA
Many more misconceptions are addressed here along with more background of the case.
Without knowing the details, no one has the right to smear Mr. Assange as even an 'alleged' rapist, and the only people who in fact do so are either ignorant by stupidity, laziness or design, or are propagandists.
It is instructive to compare the treatment of Mr. Assange with that of editors of mainstream media organizations. Do we see personal smears of the former executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller after he sat on the NSA warrantless wiretapping story for over a year until G.W. Bush was safely re-elected at the request of the White House? Glenn Greenwald here lays out several instances of outrageous acts of suppression of information very much in the public interest by other editors just because the administration in power asked them to, including the recent suppression of the existence of a secret US drone base in Saudi Arabia.
No we do not see personal smears against them, and the reason is simple: these editors do not threaten the status quo, and the status quo is favorable for corporations, like the ones who own the vast majority of media outlets all around the world. By publishing secrets that are classified, not for 'national security', but because they betray vast criminality carried out in the name and with the tax dollars of the people of so-called democracies; by 'printing something someone doesn't want printed', Julian Assange is instantly identified and smeared as public enemy number one, and the criminality he brought to light ignored while the news-reading consumers are told instead that a 'narcissistic alleged rapist' cannot be assigned credibility.
Even if the smears were true, they would be a red herring. While the credibility of executive editors of traditional media outlets is certainly important, the beauty of Wikileaks is that it employs no journalists - the information released is in its original form, and speaks for itself as long as it is not fake or a forgery. There is no prism between the journalists and the readers with Wikileaks, and the reader can decide for themselves. Further, while Wikileaks is a nonprofit that survives on donations (despite a massive blockade), most media organizations depend on corporate advertizing, adding an automatic element of possible bias to editorial decisions.
In other words, because the information released by Wikileaks is in its original form, the character of Mr. Assange is utterly irrelevant. Any focus on personality is pure distraction, and anyone who does so either has an agenda or has been influenced by someone who has an agenda.
When confronting smear and propaganda, it is vital not to waste time and energy directly debating. Such people have zero interest in honest discussion, wanting only to stir up as much controversy as possible in order to distract from important issues. It is easy to spot the astroturfers: on Twitter, their timelines are overwhelmingly focused on one issue, with numerous instances of pedantic interactions with opponents of their view. They typically (but certainly not always in prominent cases) have few followers as their accounts are often sock-puppets, recently created with only one aim in mind. On message boards and comment threads, they also focus overwhelmingly on one topic. These people should be blocked instantly and ignored, and honest people who know the facts should simply go on airing and spreading those facts to all who will listen.
Propagandists know that only a tiny number of people who read the news actively comment on it beyond a few simple observations, either via comments below media articles or on Twitter and other social media, with most not commenting at all. Given that we know big media outlets like The Guardian have millions of readers, we can infer it is only a fraction of a hundredth of a percent. However, propagandists also know that a very large number of people who do not comment on threads often do read the comments below the line, perhaps in the hope of a reading a good ding-dong or even of learning something new. These ordinary people from all walks of life have one thing in common: a very long list of cognitive biases which can be easily manipulated in ways that create a false consensus. Notable among these biases is the well-known human tendency to follow and believe (consciously or unconsciously) what many others say to be true, even in the total absence of evidence: the so-called 'bandwagon effect'.
The obvious danger, therefore, is that astroturfers or just plain brainwashed or ignorant people will exert a form of peer pressure on formerly more neutral readers via emotive language, and articles like Ms. Hyde's act as fuel to the fire, adding the more credible influence of a paid journalist at a supposedly neutral media entity. Always keep in mind that comment thread contributors and social media astroturfers absolutely do not represent any majority view, simply because they are overwhelmingly one type of person: the type who spends a significant amount of time making comments on the internet - hardly the average citizen.
Several negative articles in the Guardian have now created a pattern of smears against Mr. Assange, a serious taint of the credibility of a newspaper with a proud history of journalism. Having Glenn Greenwald, a prominent and outspoken supporter of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, on the roster to provide 'balance' simply does not cut it. No articles at a serious media publication should contain personal attacks or misleading information for any reason, including humor. Those responsible for editorial control at The Guardian must provide an honest and open explanation of the pattern of abuse on this issue. Don't hold your breath; there are books and films to sell yet.
Written by Simon Wood