Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who broke the story about widespread NSA surveillance, recently resigned from the Intercept, the media outlet he co-founded, citing the publication’s increasing ideological homogeneity and creeping censorship. The tipping point was their censorship of his story about Hunter Biden’s emails.
Greenwald also expressed his disdain at The Intercept’s failure to cover Julian Assange’s extradition hearing. For years, the media has discredited and silenced Assange and his supporters, and they have remained largely silent during the four-week trial. Ironically, Greenwald’s resignation received more coverage than the Assange hearing itself.
Julian Assange’s treatment by the media is a reflection of the current zeitgeist, in which outlets have taken it upon themselves to act as regulatory bodies, policing speech and feverishly pushing ideology in lieu of objective reporting.
The Canary in the Coal Mine
Julian Assange is currently in prison, awaiting a final decision on his extradition, scheduled to be announced in early January 2021. If extradited, Assange faces 175 years in a Colorado supermax prison, which houses cartel leaders, spies and terrorists.
Among other things, Assange is accused of having colluded with Chelsea Manning to hack a US government computer and publish troves of documents detailing American war crimes, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US government has provided no evidence of this claim. The trial revealed that the CIA hired Spanish security company UC Global to illegally bug Assange and his lawyers inside the Ecuador embassy.
Initially supportive of WikiLeaks, the Guardian has since distanced itself from Assange—and has published only a handful of superficial articles on the trial, together with an op-ed written by former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The BBC has also played it safe by mostly publishing human interest pieces, saving the actual details of the trial for investigative journalists like Max Blumenthal and Kevin Gosztola. The BBC’s digital news editor even made a glib joke at Assange’s expense.
Other media outlets who once partnered with Assange, including the New York Times, El País, Le Monde and Der Spiegel have also remained silent, revealing that their true allegiance is to clout-chasing, not truth-telling.
From Objective to Ideological Reporting
The media blackout surrounding Assange’s trial isn’t unique. The media has been shifting from objective to ideological reporting for a long time. Walter Lippmann, often considered the father of journalism, advocated a scientific approach towards reporting. To Lippmann, attaining objectivity required a number of strategies, including unpacking personal biases and emotions and conducting rigorous research. Journalism was about intellectual inquiry; it demanded a reasoned and well-rounded approach.
From the 1920s onward, these objective processes were widely adopted. But amid the counterculture of the 1960s, there was growing pushback against traditional journalism and the elitist publishing world. The new journalism, popularized by novelist Tom Wolfe in 1973 and practiced by Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and other award-winning writers exploits literary techniques, such as setting the scene, drawing on personal experiences and incorporating extended passages of dialogue in order to tell a story. Thompson’s “gonzo” style of journalism made use of Wolfe’s “saturation reporting” techniques, in which the writer would immerse himself in his subject for extended periods of time, becoming “as much a part of his story as is the subject.”
Similar techniques have been adopted by today’s mainstream media to push ideologically-driven articles, turning something that was once countercultural into the media establishment’s way of silencing dissidents.
Take the trend I’ll call Twitter journalism, in which tweets are often used to legitimize a story, rather than expert opinion or evidence-based material. This is the modern-day version of new journalism, in which the writer seeks out opinions voiced by those within her echo chamber and that align with her personal ideology.
A recent study analyzing hundreds of US political news stories found that journalists often let tweets “speak for themselves, leaving journalism in a position of discovery and amplification rather than one of independent verification.”
When you pass off tweets as official records, you are granting Twitter more legitimacy than verified sources or other journalists. And Twitter is inherently insular and biased. The most active Twitter users are Democrat-leaning and the platform is run by political panderers who are not afraid to censor content when it suits them, thereby rendering any pursuit of objectivity futile. In digital media, this problem is ubiquitous: the ability to regurgitate ideology is more coveted than independent fact-checking.
This stems in part from the diversity and inclusion industry, which seeks to rewrite the rules as to what can and can’t be reported. Countless media outlets have implemented diversity and inclusion policies in the hopes of diversifying their staff and subject matter, but this has resulted in articles written strictly from a purity politics viewpoint.
A Dying Industry
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, US newspapers cut their staffs by 23% between 2008 and 2019. In 2019, media outlets like BuzzFeed, Vice Media, CBC and Verizon all laid off thousands of employees—proving that going digital will not be enough to save the industry.
During the pandemic, job losses have continued to rise. Countless publications have either furloughed staff or shut their doors altogether. These include Gannett (owner of USA Today), Condé Nast, the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter. According to the New York Times, some 36,000 news workers have had their salaries reduced or lost their jobs.
This leaves more gaps in reporting and more people uninformed. The remaining publications run the risk of being gobbled up by the media monoliths, who will leave them no choice but to uphold the status quo and churn out mindless, divisive news stories.
More and more Americans are losing their trust in the media. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that about 69% of Americans believed that federal government and news media withheld important information from the public. Amid this increasing erosion of public trust, it is more important than ever for the media to speak truth to power and truth-tellers like Assange should be celebrated.
A Fight for Press Freedom
Julian Assange’s trial showed that the major media outlets aren’t dedicated to truth-telling anymore—if, indeed, they ever were.
Although US representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Thomas Massie have recently introduced a bill to drop the charges against Assange and reform the Espionage Act, this may be too little, too late.
As Julian Assange’s partner, Stella Morris, has observed, “This is a fight for Julian’s life. It is a fight for press freedom. Terrible crimes were committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrible crimes were committed in Guantanamo Bay. The perpetrators of those crimes are not in prison. Julian is.”
Now more than ever, we need people who aren’t afraid to speak out. The persecution of truth seekers like Assange brings us further away from the key principles of journalism: objectivity, fairness and accountability. The censorious, illiberal media must be combatted by independent journalists who engage in rigorous, thoughtful reporting. Because when the free press is under threat, so is democracy.