Is Julian Assange a journalist?

This will not be my opinion — so far, I’m slightly more inclined to give Julian Assange some other job title [though for now, I could accept his latest choice, which is "Editor in Chief" of WikiLeaks].

UPDATE: But, Assange is renewing his membership in the Australian journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), according to a report here.

According to the report in the Herald Sun, “Victorian MEAA branch secretary Louise Connor said Mr Assange had contacted the Alliance in November just as the ‘cablegate’ story began to break … She said he noted at the time that his credit card had been cancelled and he might not be able to pay his union dues. It had been decided to waive his union dues, she said … ‘We’ve drawn up a new union card for him and offer him the full support of his union and professional association’.” In addition, ACTU president Ged Kearney said “Assange and WikiLeaks deserved support. ‘WikiLeaks is simply performing the same function as media organisations have for centuries in facilitating the release of information in the public interest. Mr Assange’s rights should be respected just the same as other journalists’, she said in a statement’.”

UPDATE TWO: Via Glen Greenwald on Twitter, came across this:

Bruce Sterling [author of The Hacker Crackdown] wrote on The Blast Shack that Julian Assange “is a pure-dye underground computer hacker. Julian doesn’t break into systems at the moment, but he’s not an ‘ex-hacker’, he’s the silver-plated real deal, the true avant-garde. Julian is a child of the underground hacker milieu, the digital-native as twenty-first century cypherpunk. As far as I can figure, Julian has never found any other line of work that bore any interest for him”…

Sterling continued “Through dint of years of cunning effort, Assange has worked himself into a position where his ‘computer crimes’ are mainly political. They’re probably not even crimes. They are ‘leaks’. Leaks are nothing special. They are tidbits from the powerful that every journalist gets on occasion, like crumbs of fishfood on the top of the media tank. Only, this time, thanks to [PFC Bradley] Manning, Assange has brought in a massive truckload of media fishfood. It’s not just some titillating, scandalous, floating crumbs. There’s a quarter of a million of them. He’s become the one-man global McDonald’s of leaks … Assange has carefully built this role for himself. He did it with all the minute concentration of some geek assembling a Rubik’s Cube. In that regard, one’s hat should be off to him. He’s had forty years to learn what he was doing. He’s not some miserabilist semi-captive like the uniformed Bradley Manning. He’s a darkside player out to stick it to the Man. The guy has surrounded himself with the cream of the computer underground, wily old rascals like Rop Gonggrijp and the fearsome Teutonic minions of the Chaos Computer Club. Assange has had many long, and no doubt insanely detailed, policy discussions with all his closest allies, about every aspect of his means, motives and opportunities. And he did what he did with fierce resolve … Assange is no more a ‘journalist’ than he is a crypto mathematician. He’s a darkside hacker who is a self-appointed, self-anointed, self-educated global dissident. He’s a one-man Polish Solidarity, waiting for the population to accrete around his stirring propaganda of the deed. And they are accreting; not all of ‘em, but, well, it doesn’t take all of them. Julian Assange doesn’t want to be in power; he has no people skills at all, and nobody’s ever gonna make him President Vaclav Havel. He’s certainly not in it for the money, because he wouldn’t know what to do with the cash; he lives out of a backpack, and his daily routine is probably sixteen hours online. He’s not gonna get better Google searches by spending more on his banned MasterCard. I don’t even think Assange is all that big on ego; I know authors and architects, so I’ve seen much worse than Julian in that regard. He’s just what he is; he’s something we don’t yet have words for. He’s a different, modern type of serious troublemaker. He’s certainly not a ‘terrorist’, because nobody is scared and no one got injured. He’s not a ‘spy’, because nobody spies by revealing the doings of a government to its own civil population. He is orthogonal. He’s asymmetrical. He panics people in power and he makes them look stupid. And I feel sorry for them. But sorrier for the rest of us”. This can be read in full here.

One commentor on Bruce Sterling’s piece wrote: “You know, there used to be a simple word for what people like Assange did. It was called journalism. You can try as hard as you want to to transform his journalistic actions into a cultural/personal phenomenon… but all Wikileaks is is a modern newspaper. That it does the work so many modern newspapers fail to do is a different issue; but in essence, you’re basically telling us about your problems with honest journalists who expose government crime”.

Another commentor wrote: “Assange is essentially a rouge journalist (and a hacker) and the things we must fear the most are opaque governments and agencies. Assange’s innovation may lead to a the US responding with draconian measures as both the left and the right seem to be more concerned with state secrets than they are with first amendment protections … There is a dark side to protecting the status quo. It’s called public acceptance of tyranny”.

Gabriella Coleman, Assistant Professor at New York University, wrote an online response to Sterling’s piece, published here saying: “Given that WikiLeaks can only be understood in light of hacker values and traditions, I was wondering when Bruce Sterling would chime in to connect the dots between WikiLeaks, the organization, and the wider culture of hacking from which it emerged. He finally did, and like most of his writing, it is a tour de force: lyrical and seductive, thought provoking with many excellent points. It is important to read. But by the end, I felt Bruce Sterling the fiction writer’s presence was too strong in painting a problematic, one-dimensional and static picture of the role of hacker culture in the WikiLeaks saga; the gist is that once a black hat hacker, always a black hat hacker … Now, there is no denying Julian Assange is (or at least was) a bona fide hacker (PDF) and, as I repeatedly heard, astonishingly talented. I do believe that for the most part, once a hacker, always a hacker in some fashion. His commitments to information freedom and encryption are clear indications that hacker commitments fundamentally shape his politics. And yet is he really just a ‘darkside hacker’ whose politics are unchanging and timelessly rooted in cypherpunk dreams? Anyone who has paid attention to WikiLeaks in just the last year can see that WikiLeaks changed strategies and tactics. Assange’s political philosophy (analyzed in great detail here) is not one that simply comes from being a ‘dark hat’ hacker, even if it is consistent with it in some areas. My own experience working with hackers is that, like most people, they change their views as they grow up. That remains true even if they express those politics through technological means. It’s important to remember that hackers have a variety of positions, even if there is a general and accentuated commitment to information freedom … For Sterling, all ‘hackers’ and geeky types are fanatical supporters of WikiLeaks. My own experience interacting with many transgressive hackers this winter has been that they cannot stand WikiLeaks or Assange (but that is subject of another post)”.

What does Glen Greenwald think about the question [posed in the title of this post]? He just tweeted (25 December) that “He [Assange] performs core journalistic functions and is thus a journalist – but that’s not his primary identity or goal”…

Here is a selection from what others are saying.

American attorney Scott Gant, author of a post on Salon.com, here (found via a tip on Twitter via @glengreenwal) writes that Assange “almost certainly is a journalist”. Gant made the following points:
(*) “As a historical matter, it is clear that objectivity has never been an indispensable characteristic of journalism … + grafting an ‘objectivity’ requirement onto the First Amendment would subject freedom of expression to the subjective judgments of prosecutors and judges about whether a given journalist is sufficiently objective, thereby threatening to cripple press liberty”…
(*) Another claim is that ” ‘Real’ journalists may disclose private or secret information selectively, in the context of a given story, while WikiLeaks is in the business (so to speak) of massive document dumps. Here again, there does not appear to be a reasoned basis for depriving WikiLeaks of First Amendment protections extended to others. The principles underlying the First Amendment do not suggest that its protections dissipate the more one engages in the activity it is designed to protect”…
(*) “One potentially credible argument for denying WikiLeaks full First Amendment protection is that it is merely posting documents without adding its own analysis or commentary”…
(*) “But the lines distinguishing professional journalists from other people who disseminate information, ideas and opinions to a wide audience have largely disappeared with the advent of the web and inexpensive and powerful personal computers and software”…

Interestingly, in respect to the question [Is Julian Assange a journalist?], Reporters Without Borders (Sans Frontieres) wrote an open letter in August 2010 to Julian Assange, posted here, criticizing what it called the “incredible irresponsibility”, in the WikiLeaks release (or “dump”) of the “Afghan War Diaries”, of publishing documents that name Afghan informants. In the letter, RSF wrote: “Journalistic work involves the selection of information. The argument with which you defend yourself, namely that Wikileaks is not made up of journalists, is not convincing. Wikileaks is an information outlet and, as such, is subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility as any other media. Reporters Without Borders has for years been campaigning for a federal ‘shield law’ protecting sources, one that would apply not only to the traditional media but also to the new Internet media without exception. This is why we condemn all forms of harassment of Wikileaks contributors or informants – such as the recent arrest of Wikileaks researcher Jacob Appelbaum – by government agencies and immigration officials. We also condemn the charges brought against US army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who is suspected of leaking the video of the Baghdad killings. However, you cannot claim to enjoy the protection of sources while at the same time, when it suits you, denying that you are a news media”… This open letter is posted here.

Meanwhile, in a somewhat embarrassing display of name-calling, the U.S. State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley said a couple of weeks ago that Assange is not a journalist but an anarchist (rhough, the two are not necessarily incompatible), and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has just called Assange a “high-tech terrorist” (ditto, no?).
Doesn’t this devalue the word?

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