Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wikileaks' Julian Assange and NYT's Bill Keller Trade Barbs at UC Berkeley

Posted By on Tue, Apr 12, 2011 at 5:42 PM

click to enlarge Assange via Skype with moderator Jack Shafer looking on - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • Assange via Skype with moderator Jack Shafer looking on

Julian Assange is a paranoid, misguided, smelly bag lady -- not an open government hero. And New York Times executive editor Bill Keller? Well, he is a cynical dissembler interested more in covering his own ass than telling the truth.

A couple hundred journalists, including yours truly, assembled over the weekend at U.C. Berkeley, awaiting a prize fight -- and we got one.

If, like me, you've been following with fascination the feud between Keller and Wikileaks founder Assange, this Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium offered up a fight of Rumble in the Jungle proportions between the two.

click to enlarge New York Times' editor Bill Keller laughs during War On Wikileaks panel. - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • New York Times' editor Bill Keller laughs during War On Wikileaks panel.

They went at it live for the first time since the battle became public on Jan. 26 in a 8,000-word New York Times Magazine

story by Keller, "Dealing with Assange and the WikiLeaks

Secrets." That phrasing seemed weird; wasn't Assange Keller's benefactor? The Times had just

collaborated with Assange to produce a series of devastating news reports on truth-shading in international diplomacy, based on 391,832 secret Pentagon documents.


article itself was weirder, describing Assange as smelly, dirty,

bombastic, a believer in unproven conspiracies, nervous, and prone

to skipping along the sidewalk even in the presence of serious newsmen.

Notwithstanding the trivializing profile, the gaunt, white-haired

Australian hacker, who was connected to the conference via Skype, managed to hold his own against Keller, who sat on a panel titled

"The War on Wikileaks."

Moderator Jack Shafer, the erudite former SF Weekly

editor who now writes on media for Slate, started things rolling with a "WTF"

question about Keller's bag-lady depiction. But Keller dismissed the notion that there was anything unusual in his characterization. He said he made Assange seem like an unhinged loser merely to make the piece more readable.

"We weren't writing an academic report -- it was a story," Keller said. "That was information the reporter brought to me, and it was used as color."

Assange, glowing from a video-screen projection above the darkened UC lecture hall like an eerily articulate Oz, saw things differently. He said that during his negotiations with the Times and cocollaborators at the Guardian in London as well as the German magazine Der Spiegel, the Times seemed to take unusual pains to preserve the fiction that the newspaper wasn't collaborating with Assange. That was despite the fact that both sides had engaged in lengthy discussions on how the Pentagon information would be used. Assange said he considers himself -- and Wikileaks -- publishers of information, like the NYT, and that they worked as collegial organizations.

Unusually for a competitive newspaper, the NYT pressed for Wikileaks to publish the documents before it did, in order to preserve the appearance that the newspaper was keeping Assange at arm's length as a source of information no different than any other. The reason for this, Assange alleged, was that the Times wished to avoid looking like it was involved in a conspiracy to unveil secret information and possibly violate the Espionage Act.

"That's why The New York Times is careful to say this was not a collaboration," Assange said."What the Times is afraid of is that one man's collaboration is another man's conspiracy."

Assange went on to assert that Times executives gave unusual deference to the Pentagon when writing about Wikileaks to the point of seeming more interested in concealing rather than releasing information.

"I'm sure you will see Bill Keller boast that they were hand in glove with the Pentagon," Assange said. "But news organizations should be careful to understand their role. Their role is to hold powerful organizations into account. It is not to cover up."

click to enlarge Why do I have to deal with this shit? - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • Why do I have to deal with this shit?
Keller, for his part, parried with a cocktail-style joke about how the Wikileaks affair has been the subject of discussions and panels since the series went to print. Keller said he did not work hand in glove with the Pentagon, but rather gave the military the opportunity to respond to stories in advance of publication, as is customary for U.S. news reports.

Assange has "had his revenge. We're now destined to appear in panel discussions about Wikileaks," Keller joked.

Keller did get his dander up after Assange said that watching the American news media cover international events is like watching a goldfish bowl where readers pay little attention to outside perspectives.

Keller seemed to take that as a slight against the prestigious New York Times overseas correspondents. "I have to object to the idea that we're not interested in what happens outside the U.S.," he said. "We have 40 correspondents and stringers overseas, and we have four people who have been killed covering the wars."

Assange said he meant no disrespect to the work of Times correspondents  living or dead. But he did get the last word on that topic.

"I say that 40 people covering the entire world in the New York Times, which is the opinion leader of the United States, is a state of desperation," he said.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF

and @SFWeekly  

  • Pin It

Tags: , , , , , ,

About The Author

Matt Smith


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"