Digging Deeper


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks at a security conference in 2009. Photo / Creative Commons / Darryl Yeoh

The story of WikiLeaks is a long one, beginning as far back as Julian Assange’s early childhood and continuing today. Unfortunately, media coverage of WikiLeaks since the beginning of cablegate, the organization’s slow leak of a massive collection of U.S. Embassy Cables (a full collection of all the cables released to date can be found on WikiLeaks’ website), has been shallow. That is, media reports about WikiLeaks – with some exceptions – do not dig deep enough. They cover the latest developments in the story – surely an important function of a news organization – but they fail to provide sufficient background information.

When WikiLeaks began to release the cables on November 28, 2010, a flurry of media coverage followed. As the cables roused outrage in governments worldwide, this media coverage turned into a blizzard. The amount of coverage was extensive, but the ratio of new information to stories was far too low.

As soon as WikiLeaks came back into the spotlight for the first time since releasing Afghanistan & Iraq  War Logs this summer, so did its founder Julian Assange. When looking into Assange, the vast majority of articles looked back not to his childhood – which was extremely important in the formation of the ideas that WikiLeaks is based on – but only three or four months, to August 2010. Most sounded much like this November 18 New York Times story:

Marianne Ny, director of the Stockholm prosecutor’s office, said in a statement that she had moved to have Mr. Assange extradited to Sweden on suspicion of “rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion.” The accusations were first made against Mr. Assange, 39, an Australian who created the whistle-blowers’ site, after he traveled to Sweden in mid-August and had brief relationships with two Swedish women that he has described as consensual.

The New York Times story came out on November 18, before the new wave of news coverage. Somehow, though, nearly every news outlet on the planet thought it appropriate to restate this information ad nauseum without ever looking into Assange in any other time period or context. The information was conveniently available, so it was reported. Unfortunately, convenient journalism is often bad journalism.

Then a virtually unknown blogger wrote up a post without having to fly across any oceans or deal with FOIA put reporting on Assange (and the foundations of WikiLeaks) to shame. Until a post from The Atlantic put him on a list with esteemed journalists David Carr and John Noughton, very few people had heard of Aaron Brady.

But among that list you’d also find Aaron Bady and his blog zunguzungu.wordpress.com. His probing analysis of Julian Assange’s personal philosophy and possible motivations became an oft-cited piece of the global conversation about what WikiLeaks might mean. Before Bady’s November 29 post, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”, only a few hundred people a day found their way Bady’s blog. In the days afterward, tens of thousands of people swarmed to the site — and Bady ended up linked by some of the most influential media outlets on the planet.

Using essays by Assange and interviews published before the media explosion about WikiLeaks, Bady dissected the events that were unfolding during cablegate. Assange spells out his unique philosophy in great detail in some of his essays, shedding light on what WikiLeaks is doing now. Aaron Bady did what reporters should have been doing from the beginning: research.

In contrast to Bady and his limited resources is The New Yorker magazine. While today’s journalism industry doesn’t give anyone a blank check, The New Yorker can afford to pay for deep research and travel. And they did. In June of 2010, the magazine ran the best in-depth look at WikiLeaks and how Assange came to start the organization to date. The piece is exceptionally long, but not unnecessarily so, and the reporting is fantastic and relevant.

Assange was born in 1971, in the city of Townsville, on Australia’s northeastern coast, but it is probably more accurate to say that he was born into a blur of domestic locomotion. Shortly after his first birthday, his mother—I will call her Claire—married a theatre director, and the two collaborated on small productions. They moved often, living near Byron Bay, a beachfront community in New South Wales, and on Magnetic Island, a tiny pile of rock that Captain Cook believed had magnetic properties that distorted his compass readings. They were tough-minded nonconformists. (At seventeen, Claire had burned her schoolbooks and left home on a motorcycle.) Their house on Magnetic Island burned to the ground, and rifle cartridges that Claire had kept for shooting snakes exploded like fireworks. “Most of this period of my childhood was pretty Tom Sawyer,” Assange told me. “I had my own horse. I built my own raft. I went fishing. I was going down mine shafts and tunnels.”

While I don’t have the resources that The New Yorker has, my hope with this blog is to be able to join Aaron Bady in the quest against regurgitated, convenient information and try to bring something from beyond the beaten path to the discussion about Wikileaks, secrecy, and free speech.


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