Commentary Magazine

All the Self­Congratulation That's Fit to Print

At one point or another during the saga of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, when Assange joined with the New York Times and the Guardian newspapers to unloose an avalanche of government secrets, two of the most respected newspaper editors in the world began to realize they were dealing with a creep. Note I said respected, not perceptive. Most normal people would have tumbled to Assange’s creepiness right away, the moment he announced he was going to publish confidential information that he had been reliably told might lead to the murder of innocents and damage the national security of the United States. You’d have to be a creep to do such a thing—either a creep or one of the most respected newspaper editors in the world.

The editor of the Times, Bill Keller, and the editor of the British Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, have both since composed narratives describing their entanglements with Assange and WikiLeaks. The two essays each serve as introductions to book-length collections of WikiLeaks material published by their respective newspapers. The accounts differ in revealing ways and are alike in ways that are even more instructive.

Each editor reflects the journalistic culture at whose highest levels he is happily perched. Of the two, Rusbridger is the more frankly ideological. In his essay, the Times’s Keller notes that Rusbridger’s Guardian “is an openly left-leaning newspaper,” distinguishing it from other papers, like the Times, that are left-leaning but not openly. Rusbridger is breezy and allusive in his efforts to explain why his newspaper published state secrets that his government pleaded with him not to publish. Though he at last realized that Assange was hypocritical and paranoid, Rusbridger views him with less distaste than does Keller. He even calls Assange a journalist (in a few, sparsely populated circles, this is considered not an insult but a compliment). WikiLeaks and its founder, Rusbridger sums up, are “generally admirable in their single-minded view of transparency and openness.”

The essays confirm the popular perception of the two approaches to journalism: the Brits are more charming than the Yanks, but less conscientious and probably less reliable. Conscientious doesn’t begin to describe Bill Keller; by his own account, he is damn near tormented by his need to do right. While Assange occasionally gave hints of a not-unattractive Peter Pan–like personality—one evening after dinner, he went skipping down the street, silly goose—Keller did not fool himself into thinking that this pale Aussie could ever rise to the level of journalist. “We regarded Assange throughout as a source not as a partner or collaborator,” he writes. The distinction is crucial. Other journalists are people a journalist has to tolerate and compete or collaborate with. A source is expendable once the scoop has been wrung out of him.

The demotion of Assange from journalist to creepy source liberated Keller, for it meant that the Times wasn’t engaging with an equal but rather exploiting a member of a lower caste. Assange was not quite an untouchable, but no more clubbable than, let’s say, a sudra; a virtual wog in any case. A myth has been gathering around the WikiLeaks episode that Keller’s essay will only certify. As Sarah Ellison put it in Vanity Fair, Assange and his newspaper helpmates “were working from opposite poles”; the encounter was “a clash of two worlds.” The myth is too useful to go away. It obscures how much these respected editors and Assange had in common. Assange may pretend to be an anarchist, and Keller may pretend to be a burgher of high-end journalism, but in fact they work from the same premise, explicit in Assange’s case, buried in Keller’s: the elected governments of the West are at bottom a con job.

“Assange,” Keller writes, “was openly contemptuous of the American government. . . . ” There’s that openly again. Keller’s contempt is expressed in actions rather than words, although the words contain some pretty good hints, too. He wants to make clear that in releasing the secrets the Times behaved in a more principled way than the America-hating Assange. But this is unfair to Assange, who in the end chose, as both Rusbridger and Keller make clear, to withhold some documents as too dangerous to print. Indeed, everyone involved in the affair, from the CIA to the kid who works the photocopier at WikiLeaks headquarters, evidently adheres to the same principle: some government secrets should stay secret. The only points of contention are, as the ethicists say, prudential: How many secrets, and Who gets to decide?

The stuffy old traditionalist’s answer is that there will probably be a lot of secrets, and the government, by default, gets to keep them. Self-government is susceptible to some internal institutional checks on its power, at least theoretically, and through innovations like the Freedom of Information Act and other sunshine laws, private citizens get to nose around, too. The people who run the operation are responsible to voters, who can turn them out if the government gets carried away by its own importance. An imperfect system, but it’s our own.

Or it used to be. For if you assume that the U.S. government habitually keeps secrets in bad faith in order to obscure the truth rather than to enhance the national security, the system is illegitimate and so, ultimately, is the government itself.

Thus Assange’s answer to the question of who gets to decide is: Julian Assange gets to decide. Rusbridger’s is: Bill Keller and I get to decide. Keller’s answer is: I get to decide.

Keller seems almost selfless in his willingness to take on a responsibility that the government has shown itself unworthy of; it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Reading his accounts of how he and his newsroom subordinates made their own national-security decisions for the rest of us—meticulously blacking out the names of informants and agents, scrubbing the documents of identifying clues like locations and dates—is like trying to wade through a lake of Vaseline, so thickly does the self-congratulation run.

Like Rusbridger and Assange, Keller believes experience has shown the wisdom of his usurpation of power. No one, he points out, has yet proved that anyone has been killed as a direct result of their articles, two months after publication. This is setting the bar to publication rather low. It’s handy, though, because it’s indefinable, especially given the muddy course of cause and effect in war zones. Even more exculpatory, he feels, was the Obama administration’s half-hearted attempts to dissuade the newspapers from publication. But the final affirmation lies in the criticism he’s received, from both WikiLeaks purists for not publishing more secrets and from Fox News for publishing any—which draws a rough equivalence between people who run interference for terrorist mass murderers on the one hand and, on the other, Sean Hannity.

We’d be wise not to trust the ethics of so glib an ethicist. Unfortunately, we can’t change the elite newspapers the way we can change governments. Rusbridger’s candidly ideological motivation for publishing secrets is more consistent, more plausible, more honorable, and much less annoying than Keller’s piety. Rusbridger wants to wound a country he believes has done a great deal of murderous harm in the world. Keller doesn’t necessarily want to wound his country; he just wants to run it. Or at least he wants to run it when he’s in the mood, having slipped into the famous prerogative of hookers everywhere: power without responsibility.

“A free press in a democracy can be messy,” he tells us, for the moment sounding less like a hooker than a schoolmarm. And then you hear the faint rumbles of the dreaded quote coming toward you: Thomas Jefferson’s fatuous sentiment that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. You wonder whether Keller realizes that this is Julian Assange’s view as well. The major difference between them is that Assange doesn’t trust the newspapers either. Smart guy, that Julian. Creepy, but smart.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, our press critic, wrote last month about Haley Barbour. His new book, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College, will be published this month by Simon & Schuster.

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