CNN’s ballyhooed WikiWars: The Mission of Julian Assange special airing this Sunday evening is an odd amalgam, blending quick cuts, pounding music, and a casually dressed host (at left below) with an attempt at a serious overview of WikiLeaks. Yet, like the recent PBS Frontline probe, it is fatally unbalanced.
This is a list of Assange / WikiLeaks critics interviewed (and quoted more than once): David Leigh, Nick Davies, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Adrian Lamo, Brigadier Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt (Ret.). Here is a list of Assange / WikiLeaks supporters interviewed: one unnamed and masked allegedly activist from Anonymous. Other critics who get face time: Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, even Newt Gingrich.
Like the PBS Frontline producers, the CNN team appears to believe that quoting Assange alone balances a brigade of critics. This, of course, is silly. Many viewers, naturally, take anything the subject of criticism says with huge grains of salt especially when no one else rises to his or her defense (besides figures in masks).
In addition, the hour-long film focuses on WikiLeaks revelations regarding Iraq and Afghanistan – with plenty of time for repudiations – with scant mention of Cablegate, which swung open more than six months ago. And it's amazing the time, talent and resources that poured into both the Frontline and now CNN specials, with virtually no fresh news or insight gained.
The correspondent / host Kaj Larsen, whose credibility has been questioned by some based on his 10-year military background, partly as a Navy SEAL, appears to bend over backward to be fair here (and in his current essay at CNN site) but the deck is still stacked in the film. He even cites his own military background in a chat with Gen. Kimmitt but inevitably gives the general the last word in strong denunciations of Assange and WikiLeaks.
Larsen clearly aims to appeal to a younger demographic, as he is dressed throughout in tight t-shirt, or shirt hanging out of pants, and/or pea coat. He fails to interview Assange but stands outside a court house and gushes, “I just caught my first glimpse of Julian Assange.” The closest we get to the WikiLeaks leader is in informal footage (“rare candid moments” ) shot by freelance journalist Mark Davis during Assange’s pre-rock star travels. We even get to see him in happier times working with allies-turned-critics Leigh and Davies inside The Guardian bunker.
Actually the first words from Assange in the program, as he enters a press gathering, are a bleeped out “holy shit.” Larsen says he is leading “a whistleblowing insurgency” as “a maverick and game changer.” His goal: “a new world order….on a mission to change the world one week at time.” We briefly visit Julian's boyhood home on Magnetic Island. Assange recalls that he once sold his horse to buy a computer. Then on to his arrest as a pony-tailed teenage hacker.
For the many Americans who think WikiLeaks began only last year and as an anti-American organization, we get some helpful background info on the positive leaks relating to Kenya and woeful Icelandic bank.
Then we get a few glimpses of the Collateral Murder video from Baghdad but Larsen allows Gen. Kimmit to not only fully absolve the conduct of U.S. troops – the general even charges that the Reuters photographer “shares much of the blame” for his own death for daring to use a long-range lens that could be mistaken for a weapon. The nerve of that guy! The blasting of a van carrying the wounded and children from that scene? It could have had “fighters” inside who might have killed our soldiers, Gen. Kimmit explains. This might be the closest host Larsen has come to torture since he willingly underwent waterboarding back in his Current TV days.
For a change, it is Davies, not Leigh, who gets to claim that Assange said that if informers were killed it was no big deal because they may “deserve to die.” Although Davies, unlike Leigh, says that Assange said this "in effect," which seems to qualify the quote (Assange denies saying it and keeps promising legal action). Gen. Kimmitt hits Assange’s claim that no one has yet been harmed by the war leaks by saying that surely U.S. troops have been put at risk.
Domscheit-Berg agrees with Davies' assessment that Assange is a hypocrite for protesting The Guardian publishing leaks of lurid police docs on the Swedish sex case. Then it's on for a sitdown with Lamo in the usual "undisclosed location." We don't meet his goldfish this time, however, as we did via PBS and Al Jazeera.
Unlike the PBS Frontline program, Bradley Manning gets relatively little play (though he's clearly treated as the leak source) but the program's final segment on Anonymous should have been reduced and a few minutes given to the dozens of important Cablegate revelations beyond the Middle East. The good that WikiLeaks might do or has done remains hopelessly vague without that.
After Newt Gingrich denounces Assange as a terrorist, Larsen concludes that the WikiLeaks founder “dropped a nuclear warhead of information” and no matter how he is viewed, as devil or angel, his “war against secrecy rages on.”