Julian Assange gives everybody headaches.
Not just the U.S. Department of State. Not just the Pentagon or Attorney General Eric Holder, who wants to indict Assange for something—anything. Not just Bank of America, which Assange has hinted will be the next to fall into his crosshairs. According to a Vanity Fair feature from the February 2011 issue, embargoed by the magazine until midnight, Jan. 5, the WikiLeaks founder has even been driving the news organizations he feeds absolutely nuts.
Assange bedevils the journalists who work with him because he refuses to conform to any of the roles they expect him to play. He acts like a leaking source when it suits him. He masquerades as publisher or newspaper syndicate when that’s advantageous. Like a PR agent, he manipulates news organizations to maximize publicity for his “clients,” or when moved to, he threatens to throw info-bombs like an agent provocateur. He’s a wily shape-shifter who won’t sit still, an unpredictable negotiator who is forever changing the terms of the deal.
“The Man Who Spilled the Secrets,” written by Sarah Ellison, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of War at the Wall Street Journal, also supplies a pocket history of the financially stressed, trust-supported Guardian. But the real meat is Assange’s relationship with the press, primarily the Guardian.
Assange started collaborating with the paper in 2010 after its star reporter, Nick Davies, convinced him that sharing raw data with a news organization would give the leaks greater visibility than merely publishing them on the WikiLeaks Web site. Once the Assange connection was made, the Guardian brought in the New York Times. Assange, flexing his proprietary rights, recruited Der Spiegel—“without consulting anyone at the Guardian or the Times,” Ellison writes—for the publication of the Afghanistan war leaks in July 2010.
The Der Spiegel deal ruffled the Guardian, as did Assange’s eventual inclusion of Britain’s Channel 4 TV network in the Afghan-files “consortium.” The Guardian’s Daviesfelt so betrayed by Assange, Ellison reports, that the two have not spoken since.
Davies’ ire is only natural. All reporters become possessive of their sources. Even the most humble journalist will talk about his sources as if the individuals supplying information actually belong to him. These journalists grow furious when their sources work with other journalists. I’ve heard reporters speak with such intense pride about the sources they’ve cultivated that they make them sound like heirloom tomatoes that have been brought to vine-ripened perfection. More than anything, journalists expect a combination of trust and servility from their leakers.
Davies of the Guardian and others in the media seem to have misjudged Assange, thinking him just another source. Assange would probably slap you if you called him a “source” to his face. He calls himself a practitioner of “scientific journalism,” and while the label may be vainglorious, Assange isn’t completely loony. He has routinely published carefully collected, vital information on WikiLeaks.org. You can criticize the journalistic quality of his pages, but you can’t say they aren’t acts of journalism: They have steadily revealed unknown facts worth knowing.
Assange seems never to stop marketing his files, Ellison reports. He approached CBS and PBS, too, hoping to widen his influence. He forced publications to delay the release of the Iraq files, which, she writes, caused David Leigh, Guardian investigations executive editor, to “[begin] to lose faith” with the “increasingly erratic” Assange. He feared that Assange would never permit the publication of the Iraq files. (As we know, he did in the fall of 2010.)
The Guardian gained leverage over Assange when it secured the diplomatic war files independently (presumably leaked from WikiLeaks sources). The paper pulled an Assange on Assange by giving them to the Times and Der Spiegel, and the three publications prepared to publish on Nov. 8, Ellison writes. Assange exploded when he learned of their plans, she continues, threatening to sue the Guardian—for God knows what. Again, he persuaded them to delay publication to fit his timetable so he could supply Le Monde and El Pais with copies.
Assange’s brinkmanship, his ability to pit the press against the press, and to bluff, bargain, and reset the terms of the deal, is unequaled in the history of journalism. He’s like Mort Zuckerman reopening a closed business deal, shifting the target, and winning concession after concession. The Assange lesson is that if a source has the brains, the guts, and the leaks, he can take the driver’s seat and tell reporters to ride in the trunk.
Ellison poses a couple of questions at the end of her piece that I can’t wait to see answered. How much gas does Assange have in his tank? And where will he go to get refills? I hope she gets to write the sequel.
For all his egomania, I still don’t think Assange is any more bent than any top newspaper or magazine editor I’ve had the pleasure to have known. Express your egomania with e-mail to email@example.com. Observe mine from afar at my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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