Julian Assange is an irresponsible journalist
When I covered education in Battle Creek, the Kellogg Community College board suspended the college president after a security guard claimed to have walked in on the president having sex with another college employee in the president’s office.
Documents I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act identified the woman, but I and my editors at the Battle Creek Enquirer decided not to publish her name because she was not under investigation and we’d been unable to reach her for comment. Publishing her name would have only embarrassed her and made no difference in the overall question of whether the president acted inappropriately or the board overreacted to an unproven allegation (the internal investigation ultimately cleared the president of wrongdoing).
Years later, I was a reporter at the Lansing State Journal when the Ingham County prosecutor was charged with soliciting prostitutes and coercing a woman who was not a prostitute to let him pay her for sex. While I and another reporter investigated whether the prosecutor’s crimes had affected his office or any criminal cases he oversaw, we discovered through FOIA’d documents that a phone number linked to a prostitute had repeatedly called the prosecutor’s even after the prosecutor’s arrest.
We knew the name of the woman linked to that phone number and the phone number itself, but we published neither because the woman linked to the number was not charged with a crime and publishing her number would only have subjected her to possible harassment while having no impact on the overall focus of the story. We didn’t need to publish that information to show county employees appeared to continue conversations with a prostitute even after the prosecutor was gone.
I share those anecdotes to make the point that with the great power of freedom of the press comes the great responsibility to wield that power honorably.
This week, many First Amendment advocates howled foul when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was hauled out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London to face U.S. charges accusing him of conspiring to hack into a government computer to steal state secrets.
I’m not sure I agree.
It’s true that a news organization’s job is to share information the public needs to know, even if — nay, especially if — the government doesn’t want that information made public. But it’s also true that newspapers all around the world are governed by a strict set of ethics designed to ensure the work we do is fair and serves the public interest with minimal collateral damage.
Assange and his Wikileaks appear to have no such ethics.
Responsible journalists may publish stolen information — after weighing whether the public interest outweighs other issues, such as nonpublic figures’ right to privacy and national security — but responsible journalists do not steal information themselves.
It’s true Wikileaks has helped reveal information the public needs to know. Most recently, Assange’s organization informed voters that the Democratic Party appeared to favor Hillary Clinton from the outset of the 2016 primaries and that Clinton made big money from Wall Street speeches even as she railed against Wall Street on the campaign trail.
But Assange posted documents without any background or context that might help readers understand what those documents mean. He never shared anything about the source of his documents that might help his readers judge their veracity. I think national media outlets tend to overuse unnamed sources, but they at least provide some information — a “high-ranking Department of Defense official,” a “person who spoke recently to the president,” etc. — to help readers understand the source’s authority to speak on whatever subject they’re talking about.
And — worst of all, in my book — Assange shared information indiscriminately. Mixed in with important details of extreme public interest were other tidbits that were unnecessarily embarrassing to individuals in the least or were, at worst, dangerous to our men and women serving overseas and those aiding their mission.
Wikileaks’ first big document dump in 2010 disclosed questionable practices by the U.S. military in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Noble.
It also, however, disclosed the names and locations of confidential sources providing important information to the U.S., putting them at risk.
Finally, when serious journalists acting in good faith do find themselves running afoul of the law, they own up to it. The New York Times’ Judith Miller went to jail for 85 days in 2005 for refusing a judge’s order to name her sources for stories about the Iraq War.
She didn’t flee to a foreign country’s embassy.
So, if Assange is guilty as charged, he should be prepared to face the consequences.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.