Julian Assange and the journalists

Your required WikiLeaks reading today is Sarah Ellison’s Vanity Fair piece, published last night, detailing the behind-the-scenes finagling by which Julian Assange and five publications arranged their operating agreement for WikiLeaks’ State Department cables. The news in it is that that agreement was far more ad-hoc than any of its adherents originally let on: That ...

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Your required WikiLeaks reading today is Sarah Ellison’s Vanity Fair piece, published last night, detailing the behind-the-scenes finagling by which Julian Assange and five publications arranged their operating agreement for WikiLeaks’ State Department cables. The news in it is that that agreement was far more ad-hoc than any of its adherents originally let on: That Assange changed the terms of the deal and added new partners on the fly, aggravating his original partner, the Guardian, and eventually precipitating his falling out with the paper (though Reuters’s Felix Salmon suggests, plausibly, that this isn’t the whole story).

The protagonists of Ellison’s story are Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger and reporter Nick Davies, who won Assange’s confidence last summer and brokered privileged access to WikiLeaks’ mountain of soon-to-be-released U.S. military and diplomatic documents — and then spent the rest of the year trying to keep the deal from blowing apart as Assange brought in new media partners without warning them, threatened lawsuits, and generally proved to be a colossal headache. The piece is really worth reading in its entirety, but it’s also worth reading Slate‘s Jack Shafer, who distills the juicy particulars and pins down just why it is that Assange drives the media crazy:

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.

Although Ellison casts Julian Assange as a genuinely new quantity on the journalistic landscape — which he is — the thing that actually struck me most, reading the story, is how much he reminds me of an older one: the sort of news-chasing story-broker that was common in the era before checkbook journalism became frowned-upon, and still exists by other names in the television and new media businesses.

The person I thought of immediately was Larry Schiller, one of the central characters in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Mailer’s nonfiction epic is ostensibly about the murderer Gary Gilmore and his quest to get himself executed. But it is equally about Schiller, a sort of freelance media ambulance chaser who wedged himself between Gilmore and the media, securing the rights to his story and selling the exclusive to the highest bidder — what Gilmore called his “wheeler dealer.” Journalists officially frown upon these fixers, in part because they make their jobs more expensive and unpredictable, but also because they are unapologetic about the basic moral ambiguity of the information business — something that journalists, particularly American ones, have spent decades trying to fence off with j-school ethics classes and high-minded talk of civic responsibility.

Assange is, in a sense, an inverse of Schiller — he’s less mercantile, but far more interested in becoming a public figure in his own right. Technology cuts both ways in his relationship with the media: It gives him the ability to work around them, but it also gives his coveted role as information broker a built-in obsolescence. One of the most interesting scenes in Ellison’s story (which, it must be said, seems to be informed almost entirely by sources who have fallen out with Assange) occurs when the Guardian, its relationship with Assange strained, threatens to go ahead and publish the State Department cables without his go-ahead. Assange flips his lid:

Assange’s position was rife with ironies. An unwavering advocate of full, unfettered disclosure of primary-source material, Assange was now seeking to keep highly sensitive information from reaching a broader audience. He had become the victim of his own methods: someone at WikiLeaks, where there was no shortage of disgruntled volunteers, had leaked the last big segment of the documents, and they ended up at The Guardian in such a way that the paper was released from its previous agreement with Assange — that The Guardian would publish its stories only when Assange gave his permission. Enraged that he had lost control, Assange unleashed his threat, arguing that he owned the information and had a financial interest in how and when it was released.

Ellison paints the Guardian and Assange as more similar than either would like to admit; both are fiending for information and exclusivity, and both are in financial trouble:

When the C.E.O. of the Guardian Media Group, Carolyn McCall, announced her resignation last March to take over the C.E.O. role at the discount airline company easyJet, Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun tabloid, offered some unsolicited advice for her successor. “As a fiscally responsible chief executive, my first move would be to shut down The Guardian and The Observer tomorrow, thereby saving about £50 million a year,” he told a local paper. “It would also have the pleasing effect of chucking a lot of untalented left-wing turds onto [Gordon] Brown’s bonfire. It’s a total nightmare of a job and nobody with an ounce of business acumen would touch it.”

Julian Assange’s business model appears to be no better. Although his overhead was once modest-[WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn] Hrafnsson estimates that before “Collateral Murder” [the video of American troops killing civilians in Iraq] the organization could function on a budget of $200,000 to $300,000 a year — financial needs have ballooned as the work of WikiLeaks has become more high-profile and labor-intensive. “I don’t have the exact number of people on our payroll,” Hrafnsson says, but he estimates that there are now “a few dozen people who are committed full-time” on either short-term or long-term contracts, with hundreds of volunteers contributing their work. WikiLeaks operates almost entirely on donations, and they have fallen woefully short. Finances aside, Assange’s editorial model gives pause to anyone who gets close enough to see it firsthand. And it’s not clear that an organization like his, run the way he runs it, could ever achieve anything like longevity. Committed to a form of transparency that verges on anarchy, and operating on the sly and on the fly, it is inherently unstable.

I don’t doubt that Assange believes in the ideology undergirding his project — that’s much of what makes him such a fascinating figure. But for all its radicalism, WikiLeaks ultimately rests on the same economic assumption as the media: that information is valuable. Assange’s bottom line may not be so directly tied to that value as the Guardian‘s, but it is tied to his exclusivity, or at least notoriety, as a spiller of secrets. Flooding the market with them, as WikiLeaks ostensibly wants to do, poses considerable peril to governments and, to a lesser extent, the old media. But perhaps Assange is learning that it is not necessarily in his best interest either.

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