Monday, January 31, 2011

Assange's Steal-and-Spill Journalism

In the spotlight this weekend--60 Minutes and the New York Times Magazine--and from now on no doubt a subject of study in journalism schools, the question about him remains: Is Julian Assange a publisher, as he insists, or a fence providing stolen goods to the media?

One of the beneficiaries, executive editor Bill Keller, takes great pains to explain how the Times struggled with the temptation to partner with him, finally gave in and is now trying to keep him at long arm's length.

Labeling him "an anti-secrecy vigilante" rather than journalist, Keller huffs at Assange's claim that he acted as "a puppet master" for his paper's coverage and falls back on the traditional public's-right-to-know defense for benefiting from his electronic crimes.

On 60 Minutes, Assange emerges to portray himself as an Information Age Robin Hood, claiming that Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are inciting patriots to assassinate him, but comes through as more of an inveterate mischief maker whose agenda is self-aggrandizement by just dumping confidential documents without any effort to evaluate them or mitigate the damage that could result from his actions.

We are back close to the old First Amendment dilemma of shouting fire in a crowded theater. What are the limits, if any, of free speech?

In this topsy-turvy new era, Assange is now a martyr in the eyes of some sympathetic hackers who attack sites deemed hostile to Wikileaks but, for those who have struggled for a lifetime with the complex problems of responsible freedom of information, he looks like just another jerk playing with matches in a combustible world.

The so-called mainstream media should think twice about continuing to amplify the fires he sets off.

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