Life Imitates Satire: Media Outlets Attack Julian Assange Following Arrest

Shortly after the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, major media outlets launched a barrage of attacks on him. A satirical piece in the Onion might partly explain why.

Late last week, a founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy. He had been holed up in the embassy for years and, naturally, his health suffered as a result. Video’s surfaced of authorities dragging him out of the embassy and into waiting police vehicles where he would then be carted away to prison.

While a lot of outlets had a lot to say (major outlets, typically negative), one source stood out in the midst of all of it: satirical news outlet The Onion. In the article, the satire piece pointed to media outlets who were loudly condemning Assange for doing what other big journalists should have been doing this whole time. Here’s an excerpt:

members of the American media condemned Julian Assange Friday for the reckless exposure of how they could be spending their time. “We denounce Julian Assange in the strongest possible terms for his negligence in publicly demonstrating the kinds of work journalists could actually be doing to investigate government malfeasance and hold the powerful accountable,” said Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, speaking on behalf of many of the leading members of the media who castigated Assange for never once considering the harm that bringing rampant government criminality to light no matter the consequences could do to other news publications’ reputations. “It’s abundantly clear that Mr. Assange was focused on exposing documented evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan without so much as a thought for the journalists who faithfully parroted the U.S. military’s talking points when we could have been investigating information that ran contrary to that narrative—does he realize how that makes us look? The fact that he’d just publish information vital to the public interest from primary sources exactly as it was written instead of working with government officials to omit the most damaging parts in exchange for keeping access channels open is simply beyond the pale.

Obviously, none of this is true as it’s simply satire. Of course, as people familiar with comedy knows, good jokes tend to have an element of truth to it. Most promotional material for news outlets show how various sources report stories with accuracy, truth, and honesty. Often, accountability plays prominently in a lot of promotional material.

With Wikileaks publishing not only information, but original documents such as major secret trade agreements, a number of outlets clamoured to find out what had been exposed this time. Wikileaks had become a go-to source for dirt on what governments around the world have been up to.

After a while, some began avoiding Wikileaks as a source altogether not because the information was inaccurate, but because governments likely put pressure on them to keep quiet about certain topics. One often used line being that it got people killed and put authorities lives in danger. In other instances, governments said that reporting on publicly available classified information could result in charges.

So, with the public being aware of all these expose’s, it put pressure on some outlets to perform differently. Documents leaked to the media sometimes graces the airwaves of newscasts, but those outlets often insist that they not only protect their sources, but also prevent uneccessary damage to government operations. That, naturally lead to the talking point that Wikileaks is reckless in exposing documents without vetting the information. While no hard evidence actually surfaced that anyone was killed as a direct and exclusive result of exposures, the talking points persisted.

Gradually, the media turned on Wikileaks and shoehorned Assange as some kind of villain evading justice. When Assange was arrested, that narrative kicked into overdrive. Here’s one take from The Independent:

Julian Assange has been branded a “narcissist” by a judge as he faces both a UK prison sentence and being extradited to the US.

The Metropolitan Police said the Australian hacker was initially detained at the Ecuadorian embassy for failing to surrender to court.

He had been summoned in 2012 over an alleged rape in Sweden, where authorities are now considering reopening their investigation into those allegations.

Here’s another take from The Chicago Tribune:

Long ago, Julian Assange wore out his welcome at Ecuador’s London embassy. Ecuador shut off his access to the internet in 2016 after WikiLeaks published emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign that had been pilfered by Russian hackers. Embassy officials grew weary of what they called his “discourteous and aggressive behavior.” They even griped that he needed to do a better job cleaning up after his cat.

Assange got his eviction notice Thursday. Ecuador formally rescinded the asylum that had allowed him to hide from justice for nearly seven years. Then, the Ecuadorians invited British police inside to meet Assange and take him away. The WikiLeaks founder, 47 and sporting an unruly gray beard, physically resisted and shouted, “This is unlawful!” as officers carried him to a waiting police van. Hope he made arrangements with a cat sitter.

Assange now could be headed for a courtroom in the U.S., where he would face charges that he conspired with Chelsea Manning to hack into a classified Defense Department computer in 2010.

The Washington Post went into overdrive. One article offers the headline “Julian Assange is not a free-press hero. And he is long overdue for personal accountability.” Here’s one paragraph:

Contrary to much pro-WikiLeaks propaganda, Mr. Assange had no legitimate fears for his life, either at the hands of CIA assassins or, via extradition, the U.S. death penalty, when he fled to the embassy of what was then an anti-American government. Rather, he was avoiding transfer to Sweden pursuant to a seemingly credible sexual assault charge lodged against him in that country. He then proceeded to abuse the hospitality of his South American hosts, most egregiously by presiding over what an indictment by U.S. special counsel Robert S. Mueller III described as Russian intelligence’s use of WikiLeaks as a front for its interference in the U.S. election. Democratic Party documents stolen by the Russians made their way into the public domain under the WikiLeaks label. Ecuador’s new, more pragmatic president, Lenín Moreno, cited Mr. Assange’s more recent alleged involvement in the release of confidential Vatican documents, along with threats against the government in Quito, as reasons to oust him.

Another piece has the headline “Julian Assange fails the smell test” which offers this:

But in light of a document that the organization distributed to news outlets, it may be time to strike “transparency” from the characterization.

“Confidential legal communication. Not for publication,” warned the document, which went on to list 140 “false and defamatory” statements about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The message to media outlets: Write about Assange at your own risk. You are on notice.

Look at this piece from the Times of London last year, with the headline “WhiffyLeaks: Assange told to take a shower”: “Julian Assange’s poor hygiene has played a role in the latest agitations by Ecuador to extricate him from his five-year standoff in its embassy, a well-placed source has told The Times.” Assange has resided under asylum since 2012 in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

In another piece on the National Post, we see the following:

It’s certainly not true that as journalists we aim to protect people. But in the course of doing our jobs, there are very few of us who would willingly put lives at risk. With his reckless dumps of sensitive information, Assange was willing to do just that.

CNN did did their part with the following:

The images were shocking but not unexpected — a bedraggled Julian Assange removed from the Ecuadorean embassy in London Thursday by British police after nearly seven years of confinement. The Wikileaks founder had finally reached the end of his long and contentious asylum. And his much-delayed encounter with justice has arrived.

Assange, Wikileaks and their supporters maintain that Britain, by arresting Assange on a US extradition warrant, is an accomplice to an assault against press freedom, arguing that their work, obtaining and releasing massive amounts of secret data, is not a crime.

But Assange’s claim that he is a journalist is false, as he has proven time and again. That he is not a journalist, however, will not preclude authoritarian governments from using his case to thwart the legitimate media.

Assange should face justice, but the process will be a perilous one for the free press. If handled correctly by the courts, it should result in the development of a functioning definition of what a journalist is, depriving propaganda outlets and government agents of using the label to take cover — and providing the press with the protection it needs to inquire, investigate and report.

Really, we could go on and on about how many sources are either indirectly attacking Assange or rolling out “opinion pieces” so that the sources could say that this is just the opinion of one person that they just happened to publish. Still, the attack on Assange’s character is certainly pronounced in all of this.

In light of the satirical piece, it does raise a very reasonable question: does some of this hatred towards Assange come from a hint of jealousy? How many media outlets can say that they managed to dump as many documents into the public eye as Wikileaks?

So, with the satire piece from The Onion, there is likely not only an element of truth, but it could almost be considered a disturbingly accurate take on the situation. That’s not to say that this is the only motivating factor, of course, but it’s very plausible that it is a contributing factor why so many members of the media are scrambling to denounce Assange.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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