How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?
Media reaction to Julian Assange and his successful request for asylum in Ecuador has certainly been mixed. It ranges from outright incredulity and disdain, to euphoria over what appears to be Assange’s artful dodge from a suspiciously aggressive Swedish extradition attempt, and very possibly, the iron tentacles of the U.S. Department of Justice.
But one thing we can all count on, like the lap dog waiting faithfully at the window each evening for his master’s appearance, is the snarky invective and boorish patois of the media’s “Beautiful People,” otherwise known as the chatterati of reporters, pundits and personalities who have made it, are very protective of it, and will bully anyone who threatens it or the establishment that sustains it.
On Thursday, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino carefully laid out the reasons his country was granting Assange political asylum. Chief among them: Ecuador’s belief that Assange’s work with WikiLeaks has made him a target of powerful government reprisals. In addition, Ecuador received no guarantee that if Assange were to be extradited to Sweden to face questions regarding accusations of rape and sexual molestation (read the full background — not just the cliff notes — on these sex allegations here), he would not be diverted to a third country (the United States), to face retaliatory charges in an unfair trial over leaks he’s published since 2010.
Furthermore, in reference to his home country of Australia, Ecuador finds Assange is “without protection and assistance to be received from the State which is a citizen.”
Despite this, the Beautiful People continue to deny Assange is anything more than a spoiled egomaniac keen on evading assault charges by conjuring up “conspiracies” and martyring himself on the altar of free speech.
One need only to go to The Washington Post, the ultimate mirror of today’s flavorless American establishment media to get a taste of this warmed over gruel. Late Monday, WaPo published an editorial calling Assange “the WikiLeaks founder and self-styled victim of an imagined international political conspiracy,” right in the lede.
“Mr. Assange claims that extradition to Sweden will result in his being turned over to the United States … Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s outspokenly anti-American president, has stoked fantasies like these, having welcomed Mr. Assange to the so-called “’club of the persecuted.’”
The paper, which is quick to accuse Assange and Correa of indulging in make-believe, then attempts to discredit Correa by concluding the president is moving toward a Hugo Chavez-style autocracy, and that he had better think twice about crossing the U.S., which “allows Ecuador to export many goods duty-free, supports roughly 400,000 jobs in a country of 14 million people and accounts for one-third of Ecuador’s foreign sales.”
“Congress could easily decide to diminish that privileged commercial access early next year,” the paper concluded. Why? For calling the U.S. a bully? A bully is what a bully does, no? The reader is left with one question — if the editorial board believes that Congress might take 40,000 jobs from poor Ecuadorans in mere retaliation for the mean things Correa says about America, is it so hard to believe the U.S. might want to put the screws to Assange, who helped publish hundreds of thousands of its secret military reports and diplomatic cables?
Writers at The New York Times have taken a similar tack this week, ascribing ulterior motives to Correa, who remains a blank slate to most American readers (Antiwar tackled the emerging bond between the Latin American leader and the WikiLeaks’ founder here in June), dismissing outright the seriousness of Ecuador’s decision to grant Assange asylum.
“Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange,” and the ensuing “political standoff with Britain… has little to do with protecting Mr. Assange’s right to a fair trial or freedom of the press — which Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, has trampled upon at home,” writes op-ed contributor Anita Isaacs, author and professor of political science at Haverford College.
“Instead, it is an attempt by Mr. Correa to settle old scores with the United States, display his political prowess in the run-up to Ecuadorean presidential elections next year and make a power play for a leadership role on the Latin American left.” After acknowledging that Correa has been democratically elected twice and has a “strong” chance of winning again, Isaacs suggests “his decision to thumb his nose at Washington by granting asylum to Mr. Assange enables Ecuador to seize the political limelight” from Venezuelan dictator Chavez and really shine.
But like all the other major newspapers of record, from WaPo to Germany’s Der Spiegel, the Old Gray Lady enjoys the endless fodder WikiLeaks has provided for them. Their reporters have been able to build reports and investigations, break news and flesh out stories about Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and even domestic intelligence. Distancing themselves after the fact is called “having it both ways,” and the Beautiful People really know how to work it.
Of course, giving Assange his due as activist-journalist began and ended quickly among the American elite and proto-elite, who could really care less about WikiLeaks’ hand in exposing the Peruvian oil scandal, toxic waste dumping off the Ivory Coast, corruption ahead of the Icelandic financial crisis, or its report exposing the extrajudicial killings under former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.
The mainstream American media only began to pay attention to WikiLeaks when it was blind-sighted by the release of the Collateral Murder video. Then there were the uncomfortable revelations about the Afghanistan War and our operations in Iraq (civilian deaths that went unreported, secret kill squads, the blind eye towards torture).
When the dust settled on that, most of our Beautiful People were warming to the government’s assertions that Assange was a renegade and possible criminal, not a clean, honest journalist like themselves.
A pair of hit pieces by The New York Times, which actually worked with WikiLeaks and more than reaped the fruits of its risks and labors, effectively cast Assange out as the dirty “Nancy Boy” messenger, if not mentally unbalanced. One of those pieces was produced by editor Bill Keller, who still can’t decide whether Assange is a journalist or not. Even so, Assange under the NYT microscope is a strange, Peter Pan-like figure — certainly not “of the body.” Subsequent caricatures of his narcissism, his misogynistic, tyrannical complexes, have only congealed with each unflattering portrait and tell-all interview by former colleagues and WikiLeaks supporters.
Indeed, some mainstream editors who’ve worked with Assange have expressed concern with his methods, proprietary impulses and need for control. If sans the ad hominem attacks, that’s fair game. But Keller’s “frank” recollections about his time with Assange smack of a smear job and again, a cheap way for the paper to distance itself and have it “both ways.”
Funny how Keller, whose paper reported, promoted and repeated the lies that got the United States and its coerced allies into a seven-year war in Iraq, which left untold dead and millions displaced, is still swaggering around the country club as a pillar of journalistic integrity, while Assange is languishing in self—imposed exile at the Ecuadoran embassy, taking lazy incoming fire from American scribes exaggerating his “demise” and other unfriendlies chortling on about his goofy, tramp-like existence.
Those unfriendlies include former friends in the British press, which spent a lot of creative Twitter blasts and ink poking fun at Assange’s “balcony speech” from the embassy on Sunday. Some were more vituperative than others. Melanie Phillips, a lefty turned right-wing scold, who may see Assange as some mocking doppelganger of her past, called him the “Eva Peron of the ether” the event “a manipulative, melodramatic, malodorous circus.”
They all invariably engage in the now shopworn ritual of ragging on Assange’s appearance, the words “pale” and “pallid” interchangeably used to hint at a weak, vampire-like persona. And then always, the awkward geek, the misfit.
“A competent image consultant could have warned him not to emerge into the public eye looking as he did,” chirped Andy McSmith of The Independent.
“Far from giving him a Churchillian look, his blue shirt, crimson tie and cropped hair created — as one wag pointed out on Twitter — a curious resemblance to John Inman, from the 1970s’ sitcom Are you Being Served?”
More seriously, McSmith and other critics complain, Assange fancies himself the impresario of a drama that blatantly ignores the “the elephant in the room,” the fact he’s wanted for questioning for alleged sex crimes by Sweden, and that Assange’s request for asylum only followed his exhausted attempts to avoid returning to deal with it.
Again, fair game. The allegations brought forward by Miss A and Miss W, the two women with whom Assange had admitted having consensual sex, and by whom he is accused of not using and/or tampering with condoms and not taking a STD test when asked, should be debated openly and not belittled. And not all of his critics are Beautiful People, but former supporters — as this report suggests — disenchanted by the backlash against Assange’s accusers, and his refusal to face the charges in Sweden.
But the record shows that Assange cooperated in the first arrest warrant (which was cancelled in August 2010), and refused to return to Sweden from the UK for questioning when he felt the new inquiry was part of a broader, politically motivated attack. He has endured jail and 500 days of house arrest, and struck out on all available appeals with the UK courts. He’s offered to meet with Swedish officials in London. They’ve refused.
He is not “on the run,” but immovable in the belief he is the subject of life-threatening U.S. grand jury investigation that could land him in similar straits as one Bradley Manning, the Army private who allegedly handed WikiLeaks the thousands of documents that subsequently embarrassed world powers and possibly thrown the Arab world into revolutionary turmoil.
“It’s hardly surprising that when you twist the lion’s tail, the lion may get very angry,” said famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, in a recent interview, noting the U.S. government’s ability to shut down WikiLeaks’ funding “by intimidating, without even invoking the law, places like PayPal and Amazon and others from giving any money to or serving as distribution channels is very dismaying,” as is the propensity of the Obama administration to seek prosecution of government whistleblowers more than any White House in modern history.
“It’s a sign, and not unique, of the way in which our fundamental rights, our Bill of Rights, our constitutional freedoms, have been abridged by the last 10 years and more,” he said. Not to mention a lot of trumped-up charges and ruined careers — just ask Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack, two post-9/11 whistleblowers who have had to build new lives and professions after they crossed the U.S. government.
“Whatever your opinion of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, he was right when he called for an end to the war on whistleblowers in his speech outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London yesterday,” wrote Radack, who now advocates on behalf of whistleblowers for the Washington-based Government Accountability Project.
“While my clients’ stories differ greatly from Assange’s, the Obama administration has threatened to criminally prosecute all of them with the same draconian Espionage Act, a law meant to go after spies not whistleblowers,” she said.
“And the effect of the Obama administration’s policy—if not the goal—is the same for my clients and Assange: to silence dissent.”
The bottom line, for whatever reason (the elite’s own narcissism, its insecurity against those who don’t “fit in,” its own sense of entitlement and need to protect the cash cows and institutions that give them relevancy, for starters), the Beautiful People would rather assume Assange is a Space Oddity, or worse, a deluded sex criminal, self-righteously raging against hobgoblins and perceived persecutions, than consider him a man with very legitimate fears, bolstered here, here and here, about his likely fate at the hands of a vengeful U.S. government.
And they could all just be jealous of Assange, which keeps the focus on him of course, and not the revolution of New Journalism he represents, one that’s taken reporting out of the newsroom and onto an open frontier populated by “citizen journalists” and bloggers who don’t necessarily play by establishment rules.
For that, we should probably ignore the snark and bark and try to keep the story on a balanced wave. Like mom used to say, this ain’t a popularity contest. And we can’t all be beautiful.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.