< Letter to the President


Friday, December 17, 2010


[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last Saturday, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sat in a British prison cell fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning on allegations of rape, Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader offered this impersonation.



[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] It’s me, Julian Assange.

[LAUGHTER] I've taken over your airways from inside a British prison. How did I get a camera into a British prison? Maybe you weren't listening. I'm Julian Assange.



BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, Assange was released on bail, while U.S. prosecutors scrambled to find a way to prosecute him for publishing classified documents. Attorney General Eric Holder has given investigators the go-ahead to take, quote, “significant steps” in building a case against Assange but so far the Justice Department can't find a crime with which to charge him. This week, 19 members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism sent a letter to Holder and President Obama urging restraint, quote, “As a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves.” Todd Gitlin is the chair of Columbia Journalism School’s Ph.d. program, and a signatory to the letter. Todd, welcome to the show.

TODD GITLIN: A pleasure to be here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, I'm just going to give us a little legal background. Officials have looked into the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Acts, but arresting publishers – and that’s what Assange is – runs afoul of the First Amendment. So, Justice is trying to learn if Assange actually enticed or helped the Army analyst who’s the alleged leaker. That would make Assange a conspirator and not just a recipient, which would likely clear the First Amendment hurdle. If that doesn't fly, there’s even talk of a new law, the so-called SHIELD Act, that’s designed to go specifically after WikiLeaks. Legal scholars say it’s clearly unconstitutional. Its adherents say it would protect America. Others call the whole effort a witch hunt. What say you, Todd?

TODD GITLIN: I, among other signers of this letter, have actually not signed up to the Julian Assange Fan Club. But Assange is a publisher. One can criticize the way he’s gone about it. There are plenty of arguments to be had about how different news organizations should function vis-a-vis WikiLeaks. That’s a whole different question. What we object to is the idea of coming in with the heavy hand of the law.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you say that in particular the Espionage Act seems to have no relevance to the situation.

TODD GITLIN: Well, the Espionage Act is this nightmare passed in a blink in 1917 at a time when there was a declaration of war, at a time when there was a clearly defined state enemy, at a time when there was a high degree of paranoia that ended up placing luminous figures in the history of American democracy behind bars. I mean, the notion that Assange is, is a terrorist or that WikiLeaks is a terrorist organization says something miserable, I think, about the state of our public language.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You and the other signatories to the letter are on record opposing prosecution of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Are you also defending his decision to publish these classified diplomatic documents?

TODD GITLIN: You don't prosecute for making material public even if, in my own judgment, that material should not be. But I'm not the czar of information. I don't think I should be. I don't think that Eric Holder should be. There is more reason to worry about the chilling effect than there is to worry about the consequences of any particular leak. There are parts of the media that I think are scurrilous and I would not think responsible, but the way freedom of the press works you have to defend the whole caboodle. The First Amendment is not just about freedom of journalists. The word “journalist” is not mentioned in the Constitution.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This letter represents a very rare case of unanimity among the, the staff of the Columbia J. School.

TODD GITLIN: We generally don't do that sort of thing. We are in our cubicles, teaching our classes, and the fact that this letter circulated and accumulated these signatures in a weekend tells you about the sense of urgency that people in our building feel.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The same day that 19 members of the Columbia J. School sent its missive to the Attorney General and the President, the board members of Australia’s equivalent of the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. Now, the signatories to this letter were heavy dudes in Australia, the equivalent [LAUGHS] of our major networks, our New York Times, our Washington Post, our public broadcasting networks, the leading websites, and they all urged her to cool her rhetoric. They said, quote, “We will strongly resist any attempts to make publication of these or similar documents illegal. Any action would impact not only on WikiLeaks but on every media organization in the world that aims to inform the public about decisions made on their behalf. WikiLeaks, just four years old, is part of the media and deserves our support.” Where are our major media outlets on this?

TODD GITLIN: Assange has worked with credited news organizations, above-ground news organizations, to make things available. Now, it would seem to me that it is incumbent upon the official press to recognize that it has been de facto roped in with WikiLeaks. They're part of, of the same enterprise.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the enterprise you’re talking about is journalism.

TODD GITLIN: Well, it’s certainly journalistic activity. Now, it’s striking to me that after the initial dumps of data about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there was no urgent debate among journalists about the legitimacy of doing that, because I think everybody seemed to understand that there was a great deal of information about what was going on in Iraq and in Afghanistan which people did not have, and it spoke to the moral responsibilities of Americans. And, therefore, it was sort of taken for granted, I think, that there was genuine news value here. There was no question that the reports of military action were newsworthy but the diplomatic cables created a new situation. Were all these cables newsworthy? Were there risks? I think we shouldn't kid ourselves. There can be consequences from the release of a particular piece of information. But to declare that WikiLeaks is a terrorist organization, that it should be in some way banished or driven from nation to nation, from mirror site to mirror site, that, it seems to me, is very, very serious overreach.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What impact, if any, do you think your letter will have?

TODD GITLIN: You know, the hope of those who put together the letter was that we were entering into a fluid situation in which the opinion of a group of professors at President Obama’s alma mater might ring. This was a spontaneous effusion. I mean, this was – the building is humming with apprehension, as well as hope, and trying to stay alert.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Todd, thank you very much.

TODD GITLIN: Pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Todd Gitlin is the chair of the Columbia Journalism School’s Ph.d. program.