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Assailing Assange on '60 Minutes'

By David Swanson
January 31, 2011

Editor’s Note: In a different era of American history – say, just a few decades ago – it would have been unthinkable for a major U.S. journalist to behave as if ferreting out government secrets and sharing them with the public was a bad thing.

But Steve Kroft of CBS’ “60 Minutes” acted in his interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as if Kroft had never heard of the First Amendment, as he took the side of the U.S. government in favor of hiding as many secrets as it wants from the American people.

At one point, Kroft suggested that Assange deserved no legal protections because he had “played outside the rules; you’ve played outside the United States’ rules. … There’s a special set of rules in the United States for disclosing classified information.”

It took the Australian Assange to remind Kroft that “there’s not a special set of rules for publishers to disclose classified information. There is the First Amendment. It covers the [WikiLeaks] case.” But Kroft remained the clueless one, insisting that “if they let you get away with it, then they are encouraging…”

Assange cut him off, “Then what? They will have to have freedom of the press.” But Kroft still worried about the precedent of U.S. government secrets being exposed to the public if a severe example wasn’t made of Assange and WikiLeaks.

“That it's encouragement to you,” Kroft said, “or to some other organization … to publish information much more dangerous than this information."

Assange responded: “If we're talking about creating threats to small publishers to stop them publishing, the U.S. has lost its way. It has abrogated its founding traditions. It has thrown the First Amendment in the bin. Because publishers must be free to publish.”

Among the “60 Minutes” viewers amazed at this exchange – and by how far the once-aggressive news program and American journalism in general have sunk – was David Swanson, who comments on Kroft’s bizarre display in this guest essay:

The reason people in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the world have been influenced to some extent by the work of WikiLeaks is that they have read or heard about the material that WikiLeaks has helped to make public.

The CBS program "60 Minutes" has just published video of an interview with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange -- with the video focused, of course, on Assange himself, with almost no substantive content related to the massive crimes and abuses that have made news around the globe.

The value of the "60 Minutes" video is not in its potential to inform anyone about WikiLeaks. We can't, after all, judge the utility of informing Americans about their nation's illegal spying, bombing, war making, or coup facilitating until Americans are actually informed of it, which will require that we finally drop the BS "reporting" on Assange's childhood and haircuts.

The value of the "60 Minutes" video is in its potential to inform us about CBS and the corporate media in the United States, of which it is a typical or even above average example. “60 Minutes”' Steve Kroft shot six hours of interview with Assange, which "60 Minutes" cut down to snippets for TV viewing. Some decent questions may have been asked. If so, they didn't make the cut. 

Kroft tries desperately in the interview to distinguish Assange from respectable journalists. At one point, he explains to Assange that most reporters interpret information, whereas WikiLeaks puts out raw data for others to interpret. 
Of course, this isn't true of WikiLeaks, which has often provided context and explanations, transcriptions and timelines. What it hasn't done is pile ideological spin and fluff on the information it has sought to communicate. 

An example of what's wrong with the practice of most U.S. reporters is Kroft's video presentation of this interview. Kroft does show a bit of the famous "Collateral Murder" footage but "interprets" it by leaving out the criminal shooting of the van, a clear crime committed by U.S. forces in Iraq. 

Immediately after accusing Assange of not really being a reporter, Kroft asks Assange why he mistrusts authority. Assange begins to answer, and before three words are out Kroft jumps to a voiceover focusing on Assange's childhood.

Who knows whether Assange tried to answer the question Kroft should have asked: "Where do you see the greatest and smallest gaps between actual governmental behavior and public pretenses?" 

Kroft had already introduced the segment by calling the belief that governments use secrecy to suppress truth a "conspiratorial view," so presumably Kroft thought he already knew the answer: there are no such gaps.

Kroft describes Assange as paranoid and explains nonsensically: "There are reasons for his paranoia."

Kroft cites WikiLeaks' release of information that might have displeased governments in Kenya and Tunisia, a neo-Nazi group, and the Scientologists. When Kroft finally comes to the United States, it doesn't seem as likely a source of danger to Assange as the dreaded Scientologists' death squads.

Assange points out the number of U.S. government officials and media figures who have called him a terrorist or proposed killing him. Kroft insists that not many people take seriously the idea that Assange is a terrorist. 

And yet Kroft later claims that Americans believe Bradley Manning, an accused leaker of information to WikiLeaks, is "a traitor." Kroft cites no polling to substantiate either claim. We're just supposed to credit his wisdom as a real journalist.

Digging for a way to accuse Assange of something (just as the U.S. Department of Justice is openly engaged in trying to invent a crime for which to prosecute him), Kroft reaches for that old standby, the laughably inaccurate suggestion of hypocrisy. 

Kroft tells Assange that he abhors secrecy and yet runs a secretive organization. Assange rightly responds that he keeps sources secret for good reason (something U.S. journalists were once able to relate to) and that he does not oppose governments keeping any secrets at all, he opposes them covering up crimes and blocking accountability. 

Well, well, well, says Kroft, you're just weird, cult-like, and paranoid -- or at least that's what I heard. 

Kroft always attributes his fluff and BS to others, which is what makes it "objective," although it fails to make it valuable. When the “you're-weird” accusation doesn't seem to stick, Kroft tells Assange that he can't be a journalist because he's an activist. 

When Assange replies that "activist" has become a dirty word in the United States, Kroft agrees. But Assange points out that WikiLeaks does a particular sort of activism; it doesn't advocate for policies, it informs people so that they are able to advocate for or against things. 

This strange sort of activism could also be called journalism, if "journalism" hadn't come to mean advocacy for a corporate agenda and celebration of government secrecy. 

Without noting the power of investigative journalism, Kroft does note the power of WikiLeaks -- without apparently wondering where it comes from. This is another, more absurd than ever, chance to accuse Assange of hypocrisy. If you are a check on the powerful, Kroft says, who is a check on you? Ah-hah, caught him!

Assange replies that sources and donors would dry up if WikiLeaks were not doing good work. There is a far better answer than that one. For all I know, Assange gave it and it was cut. 

That answer is this: If WikiLeaks releases information that people find valuable and informative, then that information will make its way to those who diligently search for it on the Internet or live in nations with decent communications systems. If not, then WikiLeaks will be ignored. 

But as long as WikiLeaks is interesting masses of people, any error of any sort made by WikiLeaks will be attacked by those in control of governments and television networks. 

When Kroft calls Assange anti-American, Assange claims the lineage of Jefferson and Madison. In fact, Jefferson, on his best days, wanted the public fully informed of what its government was doing, and believed that only an informed public could prevent complete corruption. 

We're almost there -- at complete corruption -- right now. WikiLeaks is an exception. Those following its lead are a threat to the current system. 

Kroft, a so-called journalist, tells Assange that there are special rules to be followed in handling classified information. Assange corrects him. There are rules, Assange points out, for government employees and members of the military, but not for publishers. Publishers are covered by the First Amendment. 

Assange is right, of course, but shouldn't Kroft know this already? And shouldn't he be deeply ashamed to have conducted this interview segment?

If they let you get away with this . . . , Kroft tells Assange, who interrupts to finish his sentence: ". . . they'll have to have freedom of the press." Exactly.
Assange tells Kroft he's willing to risk jail for that. Kroft gives us no reason to believe he doesn't hold such behavior in contempt. 

No doubt the early Christian saints, if alive today, would be smart enough not to risk punishment and professional enough to intersperse advertisements for Pfizer's drugs in their pronouncements, as Kroft does. 

And yet, Kroft almost certainly believes that by asking Assange about every crazy point of view invented on Fox News he has done Assange a great favor, played devil's advocate, offered Assange a platform from which to respond to what everybody who's anybody thinks of him. 

In an extra video on the "See BS" Web site, Kroft declares Assange a journalist or at least a publisher. 

This extra clip, believe it or not, is an interview of Kroft by one of his colleagues who praises him for his "intellectual sparring" with Assange, as he recounts the exciting behind-the-scenes work of conducting an all-fluff interview of an actual reporter.

It's all the more frustrating to watch this crap after having spent days watching actual live television news reporting from Egypt on Al Jazeera English. 

The lack of journalism in the United States is not a function of the medium of television. It is a function of many systemic weaknesses, but also of our willingness to treat the pretense of journalism like the real thing.

Those who consider "activist" among the cleanest of words can get involved in preventing the United States from imprisoning or killing Assange here:

David Swanson is the author of "War Is A Lie"

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