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Wiki Bleak

A haftorah of reporting and responsibilities

Liel Leibovitz
July 30, 2010
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at a press conference in London this week.(Eon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at a press conference in London this week.(Eon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

This week’s haftorah should come with a disclaimer: If you want good news, don’t hire a prophet.

Isaiah is case in point. Even as he embarks on what is known as a haftorah of consolation, the old man is adamant not to allow the gleaming glories of the future to blind us to the dark vagaries of the past. The return of the exiles? The coming of the messiah? We’ll get to that in a moment, quoth the prophet; but first, let us figure out how we got into the spiritual mess. Before he praises and promises and exalts, Isaiah leads off with a stern sentence: “Those who destroy you and those who lay you waste shall go forth from you.”

At first glance, there’s something almost perverse about this assignation of blame. The same sermon, after all, ends thusly: “For the Lord shall console Zion, He shall console all its ruins, and He shall make its desert like a paradise and its wasteland like the garden of the Lord; joy and happiness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and a voice of song.” Why muddle such a pure vision of happiness with talk of destruction and waste?

Herein lies the particular splendor of the Hebrew prophets. To them, redemption is never divorced from responsibility, and it requires not surrender to some celestial force of good but a set of hard choices and harsh reckonings. In other words, it requires agency. This is why it is important to begin any talk of redemption with a mention of destruction: If we don’t know why we were doomed, there’s no chance we could ever save ourselves.

For affirmation of this principle, look no further than Julian Assange, the driving force behind the website Wikileaks. This week, Assange provided three newspapers with more than 90,000 classified Pentagon documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan. As leaks go, this one is a deluge.

As is standard operating procedure for our shell-shocked media, the story was reported loudly and in brief, leaving anyone lacking the time or disposition to thumb through nearly a decade’s worth of field reports without any real understanding of what the hell had just happened.

To hear Assange put it, that’s precisely the point. The Australian-born hacker is an advocate of “scientific journalism,” a method of reporting that consists of releasing reams of data and documents; unfettered access to sensitive information, goes the theory, allows for empirical examinations and leads to uncontested truths.

In theory, this is a fine idea. And it’s an idea, Assange frequently argues, that’s been proven effective—just look at Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, another massive leak that contributed to major policy changes and ended a wrongful war.

But the Pentagon Papers are as far from Wikileaks as Ellsberg is from Assange. The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, contained a coherent historical narrative and exposed the perfidy of the Johnson Administration and its deliberate obfuscation of the truth regarding the escalating war in Vietnam. They were compiled by men of great expertise and then studied for months by journalists at the Times prior to publication. Wikileaks’ data dump, on the other hand, is just that. Looking for context? Searching for conclusions? You’re going to have to do it yourself, which, unless you possess the skills, the training, and the experience, is a lost cause.

Ellsberg, of course, possessed all three. He attended Harvard and Cambridge, graduated at the top of his class at the Marine Corps Basic School, and served as a platoon leader before joining Robert McNamara’s staff. Assange is a hacker, arrested and fined for forcing his way into the computer networks of numerous organizations around the world, from an Australian university to a Canadian telecom company. If we take Assange’s “scientific journalism” metaphor seriously, we could safely say that while Ellsberg was qualified to analyze information pertaining to war, Assange’s credentials and qualifications should carry him no further than the lab’s cafeteria.

The silver-haired activist, of course, holds that everyone’s an expert, that experts are frauds, and that authority—any kind, anywhere, always—is oppressive and needs to be punished. In a now-famous turn of phrase, he explained the motivation for his life’s work thusly: “I enjoy crushing bastards.”

That’s a swell attitude for a sophomore, but not very instructive for anyone hoping—as Assange repeatedly stated was the case—to influence policy and public opinion. And it explains, perhaps, the leak’s relative lack of resonance: As soon as serious students of the war had their chance to analyze Assange’s treasure trove, they realized—and we with them—that there was nothing new in Wikileaks’ tall stack of reports. The Pakistani intelligence service is secretly supporting the Taliban? A great revelation, unless you happened to read The New York Times two years ago, when a story titled “Pakistanis Aided Attack in Kabul, U.S. Officials Say” was clandestinely buried on the front page of the newspaper. Civilian death toll? A sensational scoop to anyone too lazy to have followed the detailed and often credible count offered by at least one human rights organization. In short, all that remains of Assange’s act, less than a week after his big reveal, is the echo, fast fading, of self-congratulation and the sulfuric whiff of self-importance.

Had he been just another Internet gadfly, another trader in cat humor or conspiracy theories or any of the other intellectual roadkill that clutters the information superhighway, it might have been easy to dismiss Assange, as one does a Breitbart or a Drudge, as a pernicious prankster. But Assange is made of different stuff. He is interested in sweeping reforms, not partisan trickery, and his actions do stimulate a much-needed debate about freedom of information in the digital age. For these reasons and others, he’s been honored with laurels ranging from an Amnesty International award to a TED talk. To many fawning fans online, his is the future face of journalism.

This is nothing short of a disaster. As the recent leak demonstrates, Assange and Wikileaks represent the Internet’s worst indulgences and most fatal shortcomings. Rather than contextualize and analyze, this new journalism hurls data, raw and incomplete. Rather than devote time to studying a subject in depth, this new journalism focuses on subduing its sources. Rather than act responsibly, this new journalism shoots first and asks questions later. After all, why take on the burdens of leadership or submit to the demands of research or brave the battlefield when “crushing the bastards” on a website is so much easier, so much more fun?

Which brings us back to Isaiah. This week, the prophet has two important lessons for us. The first is that responsibility precedes redemption and that both involve hard work. The second is that unless we’re careful, we’ll bring about our own downfall. Let us remember both lessons next time we read the news.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.