Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times who partnered with Jullan Assange on several major WikiLeaks releases, has written another anti-Assange column for today’s Times. The two men have been feuding for about eighteen months now—going back to Keller’s shocking Julian-wears-dirty-socks revelations—and every time it dies now, Bill writes another blast. Maybe he couldn’t handle Assange’s guest spot on The Simpsons’ celebrated 500th episode last night.
Today’s column offers some justified criticism of Assange, albeit nothing new or original. I’ve offered my own criticism in the past and certainly Assange has increasingly become a soft target. But Keller, too, has been criticized and mocked by many for his assaults on Assange.
And there’s plenty of that today in response to his new column. Longtime Keller critic Glenn Greenwald, for example, tweeted, “Trying hard to ignore the typically sneering, typically banal Bill Keller column on WikiLeaks—prospects for success: quite low.”
The official WikiLeaks feed on Twitter weighed in: “The only explanation for Bill Keller’s bizarre attacks on Wikileaks, his former benefactor, is fear. The question is, of what?”
Leave it to Gawker to point out that while Keller disses Assange for watching his “autobiography” fall to a ranking of a lowly 1,288,313 at Amazon, he fails to note that the Times’s own WikiLeaks book presently sits at No. 2,539,088. Marcy Wheeler pointed out: “Bill Keller Blames Leak Arrests that Preceded WikiLeaks on WikiLeaks.”
I weighed in myself via Twitter early this morning, noting his ingenuous wish that he might one day make a little money off WikiLeaks—ignoring the fact that he already has a film option contract (typically in such cases the author gets a few thousand, or tens of thousands, out front, with much more later if the film gets made). I also poked fun at Keller’s mentioning his wife’s genius suggestion that Tilda Swinton play Assange in the movie—something that, oh, a thousand others, including myself, proposed at the very start.
Keller even airs more dirty laundry against Assange—this time, “underwear.”
Then there’s the matter of Keller bragging about that twenty-seven-course meal and private tour of the Prado in Madrid as a payoff for speaking on a WikiLeaks panel there. I suggested that he write a piece for the Times Dining section, contrasted with a story on Bradley Manning’s prison grub. Keller mentions the US grand jury going after Assange but fails to offer any criticism of this move on his former dancing partner. He also claims that Assange faces “charges” in Sweden, which is not yet true.
Not to mention laying all of the blame on Assange for revealing the names of some of the informants, putting them in danger—when it was the Times, and Keller, who, more than any news outlet, gave the WikiLeaks much-needed credibility, and exposure, that drove so many to their site, where those names appeared.
And he concludes his column with this: “The most palpable legacy of the WikiLeaks campaign for transparency is that the U.S. government is more secretive than ever.” Wrong. The real legacy is that hundreds of millions of citizens in dozens of countries, including our own, know a good deal more about bad (and in some cases good) deeds carried out by their own governments, including torture, corruption, and killing of civilians in war.
Really, coming from a self-proclaimed “liberal hawk” on Iraq, it’s all a bit tacky.
I’ll chronicle here some of the other responses throughout the day.
—In truth, most of Keller’s column is not about Assange but on how, alas, WikiLeaks has made government more, not less, secretive. But Jack Goldsmith just put up a lengthy blog post in which he argues that this is not true—yes, the feds are trying to crack down on leaks but in the digital age they are still losing ground. “Keller and others in the press focus on the mass of material absorbed into the secrecy system, and react with alarm when the government takes steps to make the information harder to get.… My sense of the competition is that the government is obviously able to classify more than ever because of its sheer size and because of the unthinkable amounts of information generated and stored by modern technologies; but that the government also, at the same time, has a harder time than ever keeping important secrets related to national security.”
—Samir Chopra writes about Keller’s “juvenile” snark and adds: “If the secretive and powerful have become more secretive in response to exposure, the response of a serious journalist should be to make sure the secrecy is investigated even more closely. It most emphatically should not be to shower scorn and ridicule on those who took risks in trying to expose the powerful.”
—More fun from Gawker, in offering their Cliff Notes for the Keller piece: “I still have a weirdly high level of personal animosity against Julian Assange. I am operating on the assumption that my readers care greatly about this fact.”
—My former assistant on all things WIkiLeaks, Kevin Gosztola, now with Fire Dog Lake, offers a lengthy analysis here. Just one bit: “It appears, like many American commentators who work for establishment media, Keller’s column consists of US-centric criticism. WikiLeaks may have changed little in the US press, but, worldwide, WikiLeaks has had a huge impact.”
Greg Mitchell has written more than a dozen books, including The Age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning and, most recently, Journeys With Beethoven. He was the longtime editor of Editor & Publisher.