The recent arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has provoked a wide spectrum of responses in media, but many journalists seem to recognize the Trump Administration’s attack on the publisher as setting a dangerous precedent for freedom of the press. Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation and the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University School of Journalism, disagrees with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer about Assange’s character, but not about the larger issues at hand.
Shapiro’s main concern about the WikiLeaks founder’s actions center around the alleged assistance he proffered whistleblower Chelsea Manning when she was trying to crack a password and the ethical ramifications of this decision. And yet, the potential use of the Espionage Act, which Shapiro reminds us, “has never been used against a journalist in the history of the United States, or against a publisher” is far more disconcerting to the journalist.
“The danger to press freedom by allowing the government to root around in source relationships like this, far outweighs whatever my judgments on Assange’s own character or state of mind may be,” the journalist tells the Truthdig Editor in Chief in the latest installment of Scheer Intelligence. “I think what we have to focus on now is how the government is … exploiting, you know, the complicating factors of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to undermine all kinds of watchdog reporting here in the United States.”
What’s at stake, in other words, is not one man’s life but rather the very essence of the press freedoms the U.S. was founded on. Assange’s arrest is about national security reporting, the criminalization of source-journalist relationships involving leaking, and, more broadly, an “attempt to criminalize investigative reporting,” argues Shapiro. The Nation editor also notes the courage behind Manning’s decision to go back to jail rather than take further part in the government investigation into Assange.
“Chelsea Manning is doing something that I find unprecedented in the history of American journalism,” says Shapiro. “We often hear, or from time to time hear, about journalists going to jail to protect a source. I’ve never before heard of a source willingly go to jail to protect a journalist.”
Listen to the entire discussion between the two journalists regarding Assange, the rare heroism of whistleblowers and the government’s menacing assault on the First Amendment.