Julian Assange still doesn’t know who he is.
The man behind WikiLeaks is not a victim of government persecution, he is not a courageous teller of the truth, and he is certainly not a journalist, as he suggested in a self-serving interview on 60 Minutes Sunday night. He is an agitator, and one whose ego (and operating budget) is driven by masses of people who feel disempowered and like the idea of making governments and businesses as nervous as so many people have been during this era of war and recession.
Agitators aren’t by definition bad people; they are sometimes a critical force in achieving change or shaking up established power structures. But journalism, real journalism, requires more than an attitude and a laptop: it requires research, balance, and most of all, judgment. Disseminating information does not make one a journalist; were that the test, office mates trading gossip at the water cooler could be deemed broadcast journalists. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
Journalism is collecting information, checking the facts, getting the perspectives of the people affected by the information, and then putting all of it together in a way that puts the details in perspective. Dumping documents—some of them classified—onto a website does not make anyone a journalist.
But while Assange fails those tests, the worst infraction on his part is the lack of judgment. Anyone preparing a story for a legitimate news outlet wrestles with judgment questions: Is the information credible? Is it newsworthy? Will its release cause harm, and is that harm justified by the public’s right or need to know? To legitimate journalists, if printing or broadcasting information will accomplish nothing other than to put someone in danger or embarrass someone simply for its own sake, one does not write up the story. Revealing sensitive or embarrassing information is sometimes, arguably even often, necessary to keep the public informed in a democracy. But the public good—not a sense of personal power—should be the driving force. The fact that Assange told 60 Minutes that it gave him pleasure to watch banks "squirm" out of fear their financial details would be revealed is an indicator of Assange’s motivations.
Assange reminds me of that so-called friend many of us suffered in junior high school—the person who would come up and reveal that, say, one of your friends whispered to another that she thought you looked dumpy in your new dress, or that the boy you liked was flirting with another girl. The disclosure was generally followed by a big-eyed display of faux sympathy, and the words, "I’m just being honest." No, the friend was not motivated by some oversimplified commitment to honesty; he or she was trying to hurt, and then to exploit the vulnerability of the victim.
Assange explained the very understandable discontent of the State Department by opining that "what it’s really about is keeping the illusion of control." Words he might better direct at the image in his mirror.