The calls for WikiLeaks’ mouthpiece Julian Assange to be prosecuted for leaking state secrets to the world are unsurprising given the delicate and embarrassing nature of what has been revealed.
But the attacks on press freedom, with some American politicians arguing that the newspapers that helped publish the diplomatic cables should be prosecuted as well, has elicited little response from the American media.
Newsweek has attempted to establish three reasons why US journalists have only offered a “piecemeal” defence of Assange, and the media’s role in the diplomatic leaks.
Topping the list is a “refusal to engage in advocacy”, which Newsweek puts down to American journalists having “a strong commitment to objectivity and nonpartisanship”. According to Newsweek, “signing petitions is verboten” at many mainstream media organisations, resulting in a lack of collective support for WikiLeaks’ actions.
Additionally, there is the suggestion that some in the American media are “suspicious of WikiLeaks’ journalistic bona fides”. With Assange’s mission apparently being to “disrupt the functioning of governments, many mainstream journalists might see associating with Assange as inappropriately endorsing an advocacy mission”.
Finally, Newsweek suggests there is an “opposition to Assange’s methods”, that even if journalists believe Assange should avoid prosecution, some are “so disgusted with his approach that they are reluctant to speak up for him in public”.
On the latter, Newsweek considers the opinion of Sam Freedman, journalism professor at Columbia University, who refused to sign a petition in support of Assange because it “did not adequately criticise the recklessness – the disregard for the consequences of human lives – of a massive dump of confidential info”.
But Newsweek suggests that the real reason is that journalists are reluctant to use WikiLeaks as a “paradigm of a free press at work”. Dan Abrams, NBC’s legal analyst observes: “This example is almost a classic law school worst-case scenario for testing the bounds of the First Amendment.
“[Journalists] think it’s within [Assange’s] rights to have done it, but they think he ought not to have done it. That’s the fundamental tension in the way the media’s covering the story, and the tepid defences.”