Without any evidence whatsoever, the New York Times published a “special report” tying the operations of WikiLeaks to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Times reporters strongly suggested, “whether by conviction, convenience, or coincidence,” WikiLeaks’ document releases, along with statements by its editor-in-chief Julian Assange, have “often benefited Russia at the expense of the West.”
This kind of journalism has historically been labeled yellow journalism. It is a crude exaggeration and distorting of reality aimed at sensationalism. Times reporters fuel a manufactured idea that somehow WikiLeaks is a Russian pawn of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the country’s new Cold War against the United States.
In fact, decades ago, the CIA spread anti-communist propaganda and disinformation, which had a way of making it into American newspapers. Perhaps, during that era this type of story would have been planted by the CIA in the Times, however, nowadays the CIA does not need to plant news stories. Journalists willingly adopt their agenda and ideology and publish stories like this one, which have the same effect.
Jo Becker, Steven Erlanger, and Eric Schmitt report, “Among United States officials, the emerging consensus is that Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks probably have no direct ties to Russian intelligence services.”
If that is the case, the reporters have no story. Assange and WikiLeaks are probably not conducting operations to serve the interests of Russia. They have no proof, not even a specific nugget from U.S. officials whispering in their ear that they can claim as a scoop.
But the reporters add, “[Officials] say that, at least in the case of the Democrats’ emails, Moscow knew it had a sympathetic outlet in WikiLeaks, where intermediaries could drop pilfered documents in the group’s anonymized digital inbox.”
The Times reporters ask, “Has WikiLeaks become a laundering machine for compromising material gathered by Russian spies?” They ascribe a lot of significance to the fact that Assange sometimes engages in actions when criticizing the United States that “dovetail” with statements made by Putin. Yet, at no point do the reporters recognize that this does not constitute proof of being in cahoots.
Putin recognizes the adversarial position the U.S. government takes toward Russia. Assange recognizes the adversarial position the U.S. government takes toward WikiLeaks. Naturally, this leads to provocative statements from both about the nature of U.S. power that have similarities.
Former collaborators and supporters are granted anonymity to speak, and one former collaborator tells the Times that Assange “views everything through the prism of how he’s treated. America and Hillary Clinton have caused him trouble, and Russia never has.”
This could easily be the frame for a story about Assange. Although journalists in U.S. media see it more as a vendetta, Assange and WikiLeaks has been targeted by U.S. intelligence agencies and government officials. Is it not unjust and objectionable for a country that holds itself out as the leader of the free world to undermine freedom of the press and target a media organization?
New York Times editors would never green light that story. It would not sell newspapers. What sells is mashing quotes from transparency advocates, who have qualms about how Assange runs WikiLeaks, with insinuations from anonymous officials to bolster the idea that Assange is unwittingly or wittingly serving Putin as he publishes material on Clinton and the Democratic Party.
WikiLeaks itself put out a statement refuting much of the report. It claims Russia never issued a visa for Assange, although that appears in the story. It points out Assange published an anthology of essays based on U.S. diplomatic cables, including one essay on Russia which specifically examined corruption in the country. It highlights the multiple meetings Assange has had with members of the punk rock group, Pussy Riot, who were once political prisoners in Russia.
To undermine the suggestion from the Times that Assange has tried to serve Putin by laying off criticism of Syria, the statement indicates emails from Assad’s government, which the organization published, exposed the workings of the Assad regime, and documents on Syrian government spying on Syrian activists were published as well.
In the newspaper’s desperation to make the case that Assange is some agent of Moscow, it questions the timing of Twitter postings. For example, in September 2014, “Mr. Assange wrote on Twitter about what he called the ‘corrupt deal’ that Turkey engineered to force the suppression of a pro-Kurdish television station in Denmark in return for allowing that country’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to take the helm of NATO.”
“The timing of his Twitter post was curious on two fronts. It relied on a diplomatic cable that had garnered headlines when WikiLeaks released it four years earlier. And it followed a months-long tit for tat between Mr. Rasmussen and Mr. Putin, with the Russian president taking the NATO chief to task for secretly recording their private conversation, and Mr. Rasmussen accusing Mr. Putin of playing a ‘double game’ in Ukraine by issuing conciliatory statements while massing troops on the border and shipping weapons to the separatists,” the Times contends.
It could be WikiLeaks re-shares and promotes older documents as they are topical, like when Rasmussen and Putin have a “tit for tat.” This would obviously help bolster the organization’s reputation and show the world the value of the documents.
Indeed, the media organization declares, “WikiLeaks has responded to news hooks—as all news outlets do, to draw attention to its archives or to support its anti-censorship or source protection mission.”
One could imagine the Times doing something similar, like pointing to a series published some time ago if reforms were proposed to correct an injustice. There isn’t anything particularly nefarious about this practice. It is part of running a media organization that runs on a small budget.
Even more ridiculous is how the Times reporters appear to invent metrics to castigate the work of WikiLeaks. The report asserts Russia “has been the most vocal opponent” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trade In Services agreement, “with Mr. Putin portraying them as an effort to give the United States an unfair leg up in the global economy.” (WikiLeaks published drafts of these agreements.)
The Times reporters never include any context that would answer the question: compared to who or compared to what country?
Most Americans probably oppose these trade agreements because they heard Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, blast the agreements during his campaign, or they have heard Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump criticize them. In other words, what Putin says, and how Assange reinforces those statements, has no bearing on the fact that the agreements supported by President Barack Obama are politically unpopular.
The “special report” is a window into the state-identified mindset of the New York Times as a media institution. Recall, the Times was a leader in selling the Iraq War to the public. At the request of President George W. Bush, it chose not to publish a story that would have exposed warrantless NSA wiretapping before the 2004 election.
The Times hid the existence of a base in Saudi Arabia used by the CIA to launch drone strikes. It helped the U.S. government conceal the real identity of Raymond Davis, who shot and killed two men in Pakistan and was working for the CIA.
Dean Baquet, who is currently the executive editor for the Times, has a record of avoiding journalism that could be upsetting to the U.S. government. He did not think it was significant that NSA data was shared with Israeli intelligence, so reporters at the publication never pursued further details after The Guardian’s story in 2013. He saw no reason to prepare anything substantial to mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War and advocated for a “low-key approach,” even though the paper played a key role in the war and occupation that killed a million Iraqis and thousands of U.S. soldiers.
Incredibly, Baquet has pointed to the publication of disclosures from WikiLeaks to argue the Times is willing to “push back against the government.” It now ham-handedly tries to link Assange to Putin, and one must ask: did publishing WikiLeaks disclosures ever unwittingly help Putin and how will the Times atone for its disloyal sins?
To use the words of Times reporters, whether by conviction, convenience, or coincidence, the “special report” dovetails with the interests of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It dovetails with the agenda of national security agencies—just as propaganda published in the press about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden being a Russian spy served the agenda of U.S. intelligence.
Has the New York Times become a laundering machine for McCarthyist political and security state gossip? And more broadly, what precisely is the relationship between Baquet and Clinton?
Since this is what the Times considers to be journalism, let’s ask the questions. Because the Times endorsed Clinton, Clinton and allies have used rhetoric similar to this report to attack WikiLeaks, and so it is important to figure out where the presidential campaign of Clinton ends and the journalism of the Times begins.