Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 28, 2011

Bill Keller’s hatchet job on Julian Assange

Filed under: media,war,Wikileaks — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Bill Keller

For obvious reasons, the New York Times does not like Julian Assange very much although they don’t spell out their political differences,  preferring to use cheap ad hominem attacks. For example, John Burns described him as “erratic and imperious” in an October 23rd story. Indeed, it seems almost impossible for the Times to write about Assange without including such terms.

This Sunday the magazine section will include an 18 page article on Assange by the paper’s executive editor, one Bill Keller. It is basically an exercise in character assassination relieved only by a pro forma defense of the Wikileak founder’s right not to be kidnapped, tortured, killed or imprisoned. Keller writes:

But while I do not regard Assange as a partner, and I would hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism, it is chilling to contemplate the possible government prosecution of WikiLeaks for making secrets public, let alone the passage of new laws to punish the dissemination of classified information, as some have advocated. Taking legal recourse against a government official who violates his trust by divulging secrets he is sworn to protect is one thing. But criminalizing the publication of such secrets by someone who has no official obligation seems to me to run up against the First Amendment and the best traditions of this country. As one of my colleagues asks: If Assange were an understated professorial type rather than a character from a missing Stieg Larsson novel, and if WikiLeaks were not suffused with such glib antipathy toward the United States, would the reaction to the leaks be quite so ferocious? And would more Americans be speaking up against the threat of reprisals?

If Keller had simply left it at this, one might have forgiven him despite his extensive record as a willing accomplice to imperialist war. Implicit in his hatchet job on Assange is the idea that someone hostile to American foreign policy is beyond the pale. For a newspaper that has been responsible for Judith Miller’s lies that led to a massive loss of Iraqi lives, it is high time for it to reexamine its role as propagandist. Of course, as long as there is a class system in the US, this is not likely to happen.

On February 8th, 2003, Keller wrote an op-ed piece in the Times titled The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club that stated among other stupidities:

We reluctant hawks may disagree among ourselves about the most compelling logic for war — protecting America, relieving oppressed Iraqis or reforming the Middle East — but we generally agree that the logic for standing pat does not hold. Much as we might wish the administration had orchestrated events so the inspectors had a year instead of three months, much as we deplore the arrogance and binary moralism, much as we worry about all the things that could go wrong, we are hard pressed to see an alternative that is not built on wishful thinking.

This is really what sticks in their craw when it comes to someone like Julian Assange or a Noam Chomsky. These two dissidents stubbornly refuse to buy into the “arrogance and binary moralism” that are at the heart of American foreign policy whichever party is in power. Furthermore, despite Keller’s assurance that he “deplores” such a stance, he is the living embodiment of it. The only reason the NY Times has written anything critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they have turned sour. If you go back and review coverage of the invasions of Grenada or Panama, you will find nothing of the sort. Imperialist liberals of Mr. Keller’s persuasion only begin to think twice about American foreign policy when it fails to achieve its immediate goals.

In the first paragraph of Mr. Keller’s attack, he makes sure to remind his readers that his target is an “eccentric former computer hacker”. Okay, we get it. Our enemies are “eccentric” while the inhabitants of the White House are normal. It doesn’t matter very much if these normal people are killing thousands of civilians just as long as they wouldn’t raise eyebrows at a cocktail party thrown at some NY Times editor’s house in the Hamptons.

In order to establish that Assange would never get such an invitation, Keller cites a communication from Eric Schmitt, a reporter assigned to work with Wikileaks:

On the fourth day of the London meeting, Assange slouched into The Guardian office, a day late. Schmitt took his first measure of the man who would be a large presence in our lives. “He’s tall — probably 6-foot-2 or 6-3 — and lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention,” Schmitt wrote to me later. “He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.”

Despite these fashion notes, it appears that Schmitt’s background is not in the fluffy, idiotic Style section that appears in the Thursday edition of the NY Times. Of course, if Assange had shown up in a perfectly fitting Armani suit, that would have made little difference to these cheap propagandists. With respect to his body odor, one could only assume that it is difficult sometimes to bathe when you are on the run. We can assume that Mr. Keller and Mr. Schmitt are perfectly groomed since their professional life would hardly ever make them the targets of Interpol, the CIA, MI5 or other armed bodies on the same side of the class divide as the newspaper of record.

The article continues to paint Julian Assange as a kind of dirt bag. On page three, we learn that “reporters came to think of Assange as smart and well educated, extremely adept technologically but arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.” I have never been in Assange’s position, but I probably would find myself rather “thin-skinned” in the presence of a sartorial hawk like Eric Schmitt especially since my own socks have occasionally dropped around my ankles.

While the NY Times decided to form a partnership with Wikileaks (one that no longer exists because of John Burns’s hatchet job, no doubt), it was obvious that it recoiled at some of the more incendiary leaks that pointed to American war crimes. It was one thing to include chatty obiter dicta from American embassies overseas (that is, until Tunisia exploded) but it was another to publicize anything that proved we were involved with war crimes. Keller writes:

The Guardian, which is an openly left-leaning newspaper, used the first War Logs to emphasize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, claiming the documents disclosed that coalition forces killed “hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents,” underscoring the cost of what the paper called a “failing war.” Our reporters studied the same material but determined that all the major episodes of civilian deaths we found in the War Logs had been reported in The Times, many of them on the front page. (In fact, two of our journalists, Stephen Farrell and Sultan Munadi, were kidnapped by the Taliban while investigating one major episode near Kunduz. Munadi was killed during an ensuing rescue by British paratroopers.) The civilian deaths that had not been previously reported came in ones and twos and did not add up to anywhere near “hundreds.” Moreover, since several were either duplicated or missing from the reports, we concluded that an overall tally would be little better than a guess.

Of course, it is understandable why Keller would be agnostic on whether casualties amounted to “hundreds” based on the reporting of Stephen Farrell. The Kunduz incident alone resulted in the death of 90 Afghans, but you really could not tell from Farrell’s article whether the dead people were insurgents or innocent civilians. He made sure to include these disclaimers:

Though there seemed little doubt some of the dead were militants, it was unclear how many of the dead were civilians, and with anger at the foreign forces high here, NATO ordered an immediate investigation.

In explaining the civilian deaths, military officials speculated that local people were conscripted by the Taliban to unload the fuel from the tankers, which were stuck near a river several miles from the nearest villages.

German forces in northern Afghanistan under the NATO command called in the attack, and German military officials initially insisted that no civilians had been killed. But a Defense Ministry spokesman in Berlin later said the ministry believed that more than 50 fighters had been killed but could give no details about civilian casualties.

This kind of “balance” is what makes the NY Times so worthless. If there were 90 people supposedly dead as a result of a Taliban attack, trust me that one of its reporters would not be so careful to include “the other side” of the story.

Finally, a word about Keller’s likening of Assange to figures in a novel that I am currently reading:

I came to think of Julian Assange as a character from a Stieg Larsson thriller — a man who could figure either as hero or villain in one of the megaselling Swedish novels that mix hacker counterculture, high-level conspiracy and sex as both recreation and violation.

As one of my colleagues asks: If Assange were an understated professorial type rather than a character from a missing Stieg Larsson novel, and if WikiLeaks were not suffused with such glib antipathy toward the United States, would the reaction to the leaks be quite so ferocious? And would more Americans be speaking up against the threat of reprisals?

I will have a lot more to say about Stieg Larsson after I am finished reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” but one wonders if Mr. Keller has read the author. The obvious connection is between Julian Assange and Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, the two extremely likable characters who come together as partners in an investigation of murders committed by members of a bourgeois family with Nazi connections and corporate crime carried out by another wealthy magnate. One wonders what would make them villainous in Keller’s eyes. Was it their willingness to take on corporate power?

Indeed, it is very likely that the NY Times would have had exactly the same bourgeois snobbery and anti-leftist animosity when it came to Stieg Larsson who created these memorable characters. As a young man, Larsson was a militant of the Trotskyist group in Sweden and dedicated to bringing down the system that Julian Assange is opposed to. If Larsson had not died as the result of a heart attack, I can easily imagine him participating in Assange’s defense. The main message of his novels is the abuse of corporate power, something that American writers need to adopt as well in the face of financial collapse, greed and, class divisions on a scale not seen since the Great Depression or earlier. If I had the ear of such a novelist, I would tell them to take a close look at Bill Keller, a real villain by any estimation.


  1. As a psychiatrist for 33+ years, I was unaware of any personality theory that allowed you to analyze someone’s character via their body odor. I must be out of touch.

    Comment by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall — January 28, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

  2. Hi Louis,

    Great post, great blog! It is fascinating that Keller compares Julian Assange to a Stieg Larrson character, and you are right to question whether Larsson would have portrayed such a character as villainous at all. Your assessment of Larsson is especially vindicated in the second and third books of the trilogy. The national security state and an apathetic, profit-driven corporate press (not unlike the Times) are among the villains in those novels.

    Comment by Will — January 28, 2011 @ 10:33 pm

  3. If this article proves anything it is how right Assange has been in his attitude towards the NYT and other media outfits. Treat them like the tools and enemies they are. Don’t trust them for a second. A lesser and more corruptible person might have been taken in by all that attention but not someone as obsessed and single-minded as Assange. I am sure I would find plenty of things to disagree with in his libertarian politics, but I find it hard not to feel that what he has managed to accomplish is, in fact, rather impressive. The upheaval in Tunisia and now Egypt and Yemen is -exactly- the sort of thing he was hoping would come out of Wikileaks, and lo and behold, he actually had a hand in helping bring it about. That is a clear-sighted political intelligence of no small order.

    Comment by dave x — January 28, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

  4. I read the “reluctant hawk” Keller’s piece not quite puking till I got to Wikileaks being “suffused with such a glib antipathy toward the United States.” Is Assange supposed to sing “God Bless America” when Washington is straining to get their hands on him and lock him away with Bradley Manning? Would Keller approve of a more serious, un-glib antipathy? Say, of a survivor who lost his family in a drone attack while out for a walk in Northeast Pakistan? And, purely technically, editor Keller needs editing. He says the Guardian is “an openly left leaning newspaper”. Well, yes, it’s left of the NY Times. But what exactly does “openly” mean? Are there surreptitious leftist national dailies in the U.K.? Is “leaning” a crime? Is the straight up-and-down standard here Keller’s own organ? His timid grab for for color in his description of Assange would have been blue-pencilled by a competent editor with a note to keep to the subject.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 29, 2011 @ 12:11 am

  5. You nailed this one, Louis. Nicely done. Disgusting article by Keller.

    Comment by ish — January 29, 2011 @ 2:03 am

  6. ish is right. This is one of Lou’s sharpest posts. He makes Keller’s aim clear. It’s to separate the good guys-NYTimes-from the bad, WikiLeaks. But this is squaring the circle since they both were doing journalism no matter how hard the NYTimes tried to pull the teeth from the revelations. It was a scoop they couldn’t refuse, and dave x is correct in pointing out the brilliance of Assange’s move. So for Keller WikiLeaks isn’t a “partner” and he “would hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism”. At the same time he can’t say clearly that WikiLeaks’s work isn’t journalism. The problem for Keller is that if no direct collusion with Manning can be proved against Assange, the Australian and the NYTimes are in the same journalistic boat no matter what Keller’s hesitations are. So Keller can only accuse Assange as having good old B.O–bee-oh, as the Lifebuoy ads used to bellow. This is what they call all the news that’s fit to print. Bradley Manning already got the same treatment. His revelations about what is really going on in Afghanistan were attributed to his “abnormal” sex life.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 29, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  7. The great thing about the internet?We don’t need to read the shite that gets written in the ruling class media.There is no greater pleasure that not reading the lies that fill the pages of the Times and the Murdoch rags.

    Comment by damien — January 29, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

  8. Bravo Lou! Another classic exposition of smug bourgeois self-satisfying hypocrisy that perfectly drives home Trotsky’s main point in “Their Morals and Ours” that “the very conception of TRUTH and LIE was born of social contradictions.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 29, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

  9. A book, “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” will come out in the U.K. Monday. It’s by Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian. There’s an extract available on line in today’s paper. Unlike Keller, the author doesn’t put himself forward as a virtuous Boy Scout standing up to a dangerous alien, and there are no cheap shots or fashion notes. It’s written for adults.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 29, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

  10. An interesting interview with Assange by Ed Vulliamy at the Observer:
    Julian Assange: ‘How do you attack an organisation? You attack its leadership’

    Comment by dave x — January 30, 2011 @ 7:26 am

  11. Since mocking Assange’s sartorial choices is pretty low, I will take a similarly low road and point out that a decade ago Bill Keller went through a mid-life crisis that involved an affair with a younger woman and an eventual divorce from his then wife. It seems he is yet struggling with the passage of time. A trace of old-man bitterness is evident throughout his article, but especially when he writes: Assange “became a kind of cult figure for the European young and leftish and was evidently a magnet for women.” As I too am old, I have empathy for Grandpa Keller; whereas Assange can wash away his body odor, the stink of decomposition follows us old-timers to the grave.

    Nice post.

    Comment by Uncle Festor Makhno — February 1, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

  12. Uncle Makhno makes an interesting observation but who in the hell doesn’t think that Bill Keller looks remarkably like Robert Culp during one or more points in his long & sordid career? Something about the late Culp, who at least had a memorial service on 4/10/10 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, albeit PRIVATE, rubs me slightly less wrongly than Keller, whose days as a legitimate source of news were always suspect but today are numbered.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 2, 2011 @ 1:45 am

  13. Be sure to compare Keller’s nervous article distancing himself from Assange to the profile of New Republic editor Martin Peretz in the same issue of the NYT Magazine (“Martin Peretz Is Not Sorry. About Anything.”) Peretz is as much a strange, obsessed political creature as Assange, yet “Marty” is celebrated for his brutal language, quaint Zionist fanaticism, and tough opposition to leftists.

    Comment by Strobe Fischbyne — February 2, 2011 @ 6:14 am

  14. On the subject of objectionable people (Perez), I propose Mortimer Zuckerman for a profile in the Unrepentant’s “Capitalist Pig” rubric. I just watched him on BBC World announcing that the trouble in Egypt was due to the U.S.A. not having given sufficient support to the Shah of Iran (Mohammed Resa). But maybe the title would have to be changed to “Demented Capitalist Pig”.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 3, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  15. Under that “Demented Capitalist Pig” category you’d not only have Zuckerman (who I was happy to hear lost millions to Bernie Madoff’s swindle) and Peretz (good point raised by Strobe above) but also virtually every pinched white male asshole like Morton Kondracke & others that appeared on the McLaughlin Group.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 3, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: