Spotlights and Shadows Revisited: The Case of Julian Assange

 While Greg Mitchell, over at the Nation, continues his solitary quest to be the man who blogs every scrap of news ever produced about Wikileaks or Julian Assange, the rest of the press seems to have more or less moved on. Although newspapers often supplement their daily reporting with scraps of insight gleaned from the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in November 2010, the media has shifted its ravenous gaze to events in the Middle East, Tokyo, and Charlie Sheen’s head. The Assange supporters at his extradition hearing in London have dwindled, and no new leaks appear to be on the horizon (though the past history of Wikileaks should teach us that this can quickly change).

[update 4/24/2011: As I guessed above, the past history of Wikileaks should, indeed, teach us that the absence of a major document dump will probably not last forever. On Sunday, April 24th, Wikileaks released major files from prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. A number of major media outlets published their own Gitmo stories, with some (The Washington Post) crediting Wikileaks, and others (like the New York Times) noting they obtained the files elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how the discussion of Julian Assange changes, or does not change, in the aftermath of the latest events.] 

There is much serious news to report about Wikileaks-related issues, of course. Court battles continue as to whether Twitter and other online social media sites can be compelled to release the personal data of Wikileaks volunteers. The circumstances behind Bradley Manning’s imprisonment appear to the blackest mark yet on an Obama Administration which has systematically violated its civil liberties campaign promises. And questions about the relationship between Wikileaks and the larger, rapidly transforming journalistic ecosystem remain not only remain, but will probably occupy media scholars and pundits for years to come.

A lot of recent news about Wikileaks itself, though, has been about Julian Assange-- and much of that has been of the tawdry, gossip-level variety. (For just one recent but typical example see “Leaked: Julian Assange on the Dancefloor?” at Forbes. Or you might go back a few months and check out these photos of Julian Assange in the full holiday spirit.) Meanwhile, the largest and most dramatic personal tale in the saga of Wikileaks and Julian Assange—the tell-all book by former Wikileaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg—itself appears as much motivated by human emotions of jealousy and political disagreements over Assange’s celebrity status. The press release accompanying his book, Inside Wikileaks, reads:

Domscheit-Berg resigned from WikiLeaks, dismayed by… the concentration of power by what he – and other core members of WL – regarded to be an increasingly autocratic, megalomaniac, and paranoid Julian Assange.

And Daniel Domscheit-Berg is only one of many former partners with whom Assange has had a public falling out; other victims include Guardian journalist Nick Davies and even New York Times editor Bill Keller, whose reminiscences about the Wikileaks included a surprising amount of personal vitriol.

Why is the coverage of Julian Assange so personal? What accounts for the mutual love-hate (and mostly, it seems hate) relationship be has with the traditional media? I would argue that the answer to these connected questions lies in the dynamics of personality, biography and leadership certification that often accompany journalistic entanglements with social movements and radical organizations. I also would argue that the personality-driven, narratival nature of much of the Wikileaks coverage so far holds lessons for the potential success or failure of newer organizations like Openleaks

Of course, there have been these sorts of tensions for a long time, and much of the most useful sociological research on journalism stems from analysis of the way that oppositional movements and media organizations interact. In The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media and the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, his study of media coverage of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), sociologist Todd Gitlin argued that “opposition movements enter the media spotlight for rational purposes,” but concluded that, in the case of the New Left, precisely the same factors that make the mass media strategically valuable for opposition movements “are also what makes the media dangerous.” In this classic work,  Gitlin makes a complex argument about the manner in which supposedly anti-hierarchical political movements interact with the media, with the media both the certifying leaders of these movements and creating a feedback loop in which activists begin to care as much about the representation in the media as they do their actual interactions with political reality

In Gitlin’s words, there is a “discrepancy between a [left movement’s] values (‘no leaders’) and its organization.” The traditional media seems unable to adapt the notion of a “leaderless” organization into its journalistic routines, and usually certifies leaders on its own. At the same time, most radical groups contain implicit bureaucratic elements and hierarchies, even if the members of these groups ignore and minimize these hierarchies. The leaders of these groups "float in a kind of artificial space, surrounded by halos of processed personality; the media became their constituency."

There is no sign, of course, that Julian Assange ever thought of Wikileaks as an anti-hierarchical organization; indeed, from the early days of the group Assange always seemed happy to portrayed as the group’s leader and was obviously the man who did the most to bring the organization into existence. Nevertheless, Wikileaks grows out of a particular political culture in which leaders are viewed with suspicion; this much is obvious in Domscheit-Berg’s complaints about Assange’s “ concentration of power” and his “increasingly autocratic, megalomaniac, and paranoid” behavior. Assange enjoys being a celebrity, and in order to talk about Wikileaks, the media needs leaders. This arrangement of “leader certification” thus works well for everyone, apart from Domscheit-Berg and the rest of the Wikileaks core team who find themselves on the outside.

Ultimately, however, Assange appears to be trying have it both ways. While he exults in the media spotlight (the decision to be photographed in his “country manor” during the Christmas holiday was obviously a calculated decision) he is equally likely to bristle over the media’s focus on his “personal life” when he is portrayed in ways he does not like. We need to complicate be arguments like those of Glenn Greenwald, who has claimed that a focus on Assange’s personal life is a “distraction” from serious issues. This is true, as far as it goes. But it is also irrelevant. Assange, along with some of his supporters, seem unwilling to fully confront the bargain he has made with the mainstream press: in exchange for attention, the ability to promote his cause and his politics in a media world which cares very little about them, one sacrifices control over one’s image. This is a trade-off that Gitlin’s certified SDS leaders would fully understand … today, at least, if not in 1969

All of this has consequences for the success of groups like Openleaks, founded by the disillusioned Domscheit-Berg. If Domscheit-Berg turns out to be a boring fellow, and as committed to de-personalization as he claims, will the leaks launched by his group have the same impact as those from Wikileaks? As the process of mass digital leaking becomes institutionalized at newspapers like the New York Times and cable news channels like Al Jazeera, one wonders if impact will continue to accrue to organizations with purportedly megalomanical founders.

I want to make one final point in this all-to brief essay, a point that is perhaps the most interesting as well as the most difficult to answer. Why does the “media spotlight” paradigm continue to hold sway in a journalistic world so radically different than the one Gitlin chronicled in the 1980’s? After all, Wikileaks is itself a media organization; why should it be so dependent on the celebrity-inclined tendencies of the traditional press?  Much of the impetus behind the call to “be the media” in the early days of the digital revolution stemmed from a desire to escape the very trap Gitlin chronicled in The Whole World is Watching. While much of the analysis of the continued importance of the traditional press is often framed in terms of the fact that it contributes the most original reporting and shoe-leather journalism, we shouldn’t forget that there are other reasons for the success of the mainstream media as well. One of them is the manner in which it taps into a deep desire on the part of news consumers to be entertained, to bask in the sun of celebrity. It may be that the “scientific journalism” of Wikileaks and similar groups is too bloodless to ever obviate the need for the creation of dramatic stories with outsized personalities and colorful characters.

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