By Danielle Ryan
The Trump administration is admonished as a threat to journalism worldwide in a new oped penned by New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger. It’s just a pity that in the 3,200-word screed, he found no time to mention Julian Assange.
Perhaps a worse sin than his purposeful omission of Assange’s pertinent case, though, is Sulzberger’s utterly disingenuous claim that before Donald Trump came along, the US government was “the world’s greatest champion of the free press.”
Readers who make it to the end of the piece would be none the wiser as to the fact that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, waged a war on whistleblowers, prosecuting more of them than all previous US administrations combined and paving the way for Trump’s further attacks.
Assange’s name may be appearing less frequently in the news these days, but Sulzberger will be well aware that the Australian whistleblower and WikiLeaks co-founder is still a prisoner at London’s top security Belmarsh Prison, despite the fact that his sentence for skipping bail is up.
Though he was due for release on September 22, a court ruled that Assange must stay in prison until his extradition hearing next year, citing his “history of absconding.” In other words, the whistleblower who exposed US war crimes managed to evade persecution by US authorities once before — and the British government is determined not to let that happen again.
Sulzberger knows all this but consciously chose to ignore it in favor of anecdotes about the heroism of the Times’ own reporters around the world and the Trump administration’s reluctance to stand up for journalists, American and otherwise. Some of the stories he tells are indeed worrying and deserve to be told — but let’s be clear: No defense of the free press is sincere and complete without a strong and unambiguous defense of Julian Assange.
Nonetheless, the piece was praised by mainstream journalists on Twitter. “A call to arms,” said NYT columnist Jim Rutenberg. “The best analysis” of the damage Trump has done to the free press, said Brazilian journalist Rosental Alves. “A powerful defense,” of journalism, declared Gannett CNY editor Jeffrey Platsky.
But Sulzberger’s things-were-great-and-then-Trump-happened tone is typical of the overly simplified manner in which US media elites have been framing the Trump presidency from the outset. From targeting whistleblowers, to deporting migrants, to turning a blind eye to Saudi atrocities in Yemen — if Obama did it, it was fine, admirable and initiated without malice. If Trump does it, it’s unacceptable, reprehensible and rooted in evil — even if there is little meaningful difference in outcomes.
Without a hint of Assange-related irony, Sulzberger warns that governments around the world are targeting journalists who have been “exposing uncomfortable truths and holding power to account.” The current administration has “retreated from our country’s historical role as a defender of the free press,” he continues, throwing in a quote from the late Senator John McCain — chief senate warmonger and friend to Ukrainian neo-Nazis and Syrian terrorists, who the intrepid muckrakers over at the Washington Post once lauded for his ability to “make journalists love him.”
Truly explosive stuff; someone find these risk-takers a free cell at Belmarsh immediately.
Back at home, Trump’s attacks on the media have served to “undermine” the public’s faith in journalists, Sulzberger argues, noting that the president has tweeted about“fake news” 600 times since taking office. There is no denying that Trump has undermined the public’s already waning faith in the free press by labelling all reporting which displeases him as “fake.”
Yet, what Sulzberger fails to acknowledge is how the media has been so helpful to him in this regard. Times editor Dean Baquet admitted recently that three years of Russiagate coverage which essentially amounted to nothing had left the paper of record “flat-footed.” Trump, of course, took full advantage of the genuinely abysmal coverage of his presidency.
Concluding, Sulzberger assures the reader that he has raised his concerns with Trump personally, to no avail, and warns that threatening to prosecute journalists for doing their jobs gives repressive leaders around the world “implicit license” to do the same. Someone should remind him that if Trump bears responsibility here, he rightfully shares it with Obama.
As for those repressive leaders, they need look no further than Assange — and when they examine his case, they’ll be emboldened further, knowing that even his fellow journalists failed to stand up and loudly advocate for him.