How Propaganda Poisons the Mind - and Our Discourse

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Salon.com

How Propaganda Poisons the Mind - and Our Discourse

Last week, on January 3, The Guardian published a scathing Op-Ed by James Richardson blaming WikiLeaks for endangering the life of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the democratic opposition in Zimbabwe.  Richardson -- a GOP operative, contributor to RedState.com, and a for-hire corporate spokesman -- pointed to a cable published by WikiLeaks in which American diplomats revealed that Tsvangirai, while publicly opposing American sanctions on his country, had privately urged their continuation as a means of weakening the Mugabe regime:  an act likely to be deemed to be treasonous in that country, for obvious reasons.  By publishing this cable, "WikiLeaks may have committed its own collateral murder," Richardson wrote.  He added:  "WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life."

This accusation against WikiLeaks was repeated far and wide.  In The Wall Street Journal, Jamie Kirchick -- the long-time assistant of The New Republic's Marty Peretz -- wrote under this headline:  "Julian Assange's reckless behavior could cost Zimbabwe's leading democrat his life."  Kirchick explained that "the crusading 'anti-secrecy' website released a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Harare" which exposed Tsvangirai's support for sanctions.  As "a result of the WikiLeaks revelations," Kirchick wrote, the reform leader would likely be charged with treason, and "Mr. Tsvangirai will have someone additional to blame: Julian Assange of WikiLeaks."  The Atlantic's Chris Albon, in his piece entitled "How WikiLeaks Just Set Back Democracy in Zimbabwe," echoed the same accusation, claiming "WikiLeaks released [this cable] to the world" and that Assange has thus "provided a tyrant with the ammunition to wound, and perhaps kill, any chance for multiparty democracy."  Numerous other outlets predictably mimicked these claims.

There was just one small problem with all of this:  it was totally false.  It wasn't WikiLeaks which chose that cable to be placed into the public domain, nor was it WikiLeaks which first published it.  It was The Guardian that did that.  In early December, that newspaper -- not WikiLeaks -- selected and then published the cable in question.  This fact led The Guardian -- more than a full week after they published Richardson's accusatory column -- to sheepishly add this obscured though extremely embarrassing "clarification" at the end of his column:

• This article was amended on 11 January 2011 to clarify the fact that the 2009 cable referred to in this article was placed in the public domain by the Guardian, and not as originally implied by WikiLeaks. The photo caption was also amended to reflect this fact.

The way this "clarification" was done was bizarre.  The misleading headline still remains ("If Morgan Tsvangirai is charged with treason, WikiLeaks will have earned the ignominy of Robert Mugabe's gratitude").  So do numerous sentences attributing publication to WikiLeaks ("WikiLeaks may have committed its own collateral murder . . . . in the wake of  WikiLeaks' release . . . where Mugabe's strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe's democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed").  Meanwhile, other sentences originally in the piece were changed without notice:  for instance, the claim that "WikiLeaks released last week a classified US state department cable relating to a 2009 meeting between Tsvangirai and American and European ambassadors" was changed to read:  "The Guardian released . . . ."  And the photo caption was changed from "Zimbabwe's PM Morgan Tsvangirai faces a treason inquiry after WikiLeaks's publication of a US embassy cable" to "after the Guardian's publication."

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Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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