From Judith Miller to Julian Assange

Jay Rozen says: “Our press has never come to terms with the ways in which it got itself on the wrong side of secrecy as the national security state swelled in size after September 11th.”

Noting that the New York Times did eventually look back at its own role in the build-up to the war in Iraq, Rozen says:

[T]he Times did not look at the problem of journalists giving powerful officials a free pass by stripping names from fear-mongering words and just reporting the words, or of newspapers sworn to inform the public keeping secrets from that same (misinformed) public, of reporters getting played and yet refusing to ID the people who played them because they needed to signal some future player that the confidential source game would go on.

In its look back the Times declared itself insufficiently skeptical, especially about Iraqi defectors. True enough. But the look back was itself insufficiently skeptical. Radical doubt, which is basic to understanding what drives Julian Assange, was impermissible then. One of the consequences of that is the appeal of radical transparency today.

Simon Jenkins got at some of this in a Guardian column on Wikileaks: “Accountability can only default to disclosure. As Jefferson remarked, the press is the last best hope when democratic oversight fails.” But at the nadir the last best hope failed, too. When that happens accountability defaults to extreme disclosure, which is where we are today. The institutional press isn’t driving it; the wilds of the Internet are. To understand Julian Assange and the weird reactions to him in the American press we need to tell a story that starts with Judy Miller and ends with Wikileaks.

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