[12/29/16] JULIAN ASSANGE IS a deeply polarizing figure. Many admire him and many despise him (into which category one falls in any given year typically depends on one’s feelings about the subject of his most recent publication of leaked documents).
But one’s views of Assange are completely irrelevant to this article, which is not about Assange. This article, instead, is about a report published this week by The Guardian that recklessly attributed to Assange comments that he did not make. This article is about how those false claims — fabrications, really — were spread all over the internet by journalists, causing hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) to consume false news. The purpose of this article is to underscore, yet again, that those who most flamboyantly denounce Fake News, and want Facebook and other tech giants to suppress content in the name of combating it, are often the most aggressive and self-serving perpetrators of it.
One’s views of Assange are completely irrelevant to this article because, presumably, everyone agrees that publication of false claims by a media outlet is very bad, even when it’s designed to malign someone you hate. Journalistic recklessness does not become noble or tolerable if it serves the right agenda or cause. The only way one’s views of Assange are relevant to this article is if one finds journalistic falsehoods and Fake News objectionable only when deployed against figures one likes.
THE SHODDY AND misleading Guardian article, written by Ben Jacobs, was published on December 24. It made two primary claims — both of which are demonstrably false. The first false claim was hyped in the article’s headline: “Julian Assange gives guarded praise of Trump and blasts Clinton in interview.” This claim was repeated in the first paragraph of the article: “Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has offered guarded praise of Donald Trump. …”
The second claim was an even worse assault on basic journalism. Jacobs set up this claim by asserting that Assange “long had a close relationship with the Putin regime.” The only “evidence” offered for this extraordinary claim was that Assange, in 2012, conducted eight interviews that were broadcast on RT. With the claimed Assange-Putin alliance implanted, Jacobs then wrote: “In his interview with la Repubblica, [Assange] said there was no need for WikiLeaks to undertake a whistleblowing role in Russia because of the open and competitive debate he claimed exists there.”
The reason these two claims are so significant, so certain to attract massive numbers of clicks and shares, is obvious. They play directly into the biases of Clinton supporters and flatter their central narrative about the election: that Clinton lost because the Kremlin used its agents, such as Assange, to boost Trump and sink Clinton. By design, the article makes it seem as though Assange is heralding Russia as such a free, vibrant, and transparent political culture that — in contrast to the repressive West — no whistleblowing is needed, all while praising Trump.
But none of that actually happened. Those claims are made up.
Despite how much online attention it received, Jacobs’s Guardian article contained no original reporting. Indeed, it did nothing but purport to summarize the work of an actually diligent journalist: Stefania Maurizi of the Italian daily la Repubblica, who traveled to London and conducted the interview with Assange. Maurizi’s interview was conducted in English, and la Repubblica published the transcript online. Jacobs’s “work” consisted of nothing other than purporting to re-write the parts of that interview he wanted to highlight, so that he and The Guardian could receive the traffic for her work.
Ever since the Guardian article was published and went viral, Maurizi has repeatedly objected to the false claims being made about what Assange said in their interview. But while Western journalists keep re-tweeting and sharing The Guardian’s second-hand summary of this interview, they completely ignore Maurizi’s protests — for reasons that are both noxious and revealing.