Last week marked the first anniversary of the day WikiLeaks started to become a household name in America—with its release of the “Collateral Murder” video that showed a US Apache helicopter crew firing on and killing Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters staffers, along with possible insurgents. Private Bradley Manning has been accused of leaking the video.
Exactly one week later, on April 12, Stephen Colbert hosted on his Colbert Report the then little-known (in America) Julian Assange. This came long before the release of the Afghan and Iraq “war logs” and “Cablegate” revelations, and sex crime charges would land Assange in trouble in Sweden. The uncharacteristically hostile (off and on) Colbert interview is worth a revisit now. It’s drawn from my new book and e-book, The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond).
During this first week of publicity for WikiLeaks after the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, most Americans had only met Assange in brief snippets on the nightly news or on one of the cable programs, if they were really paying attention. For a few million people (via its original airing and then on the web), a more revealing and intense introduction came from an unusual platform: Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. On April 12, Assange appeared for the trademark, show-closing interview with its host.
Sitting across from Assange, who was wearing a light-colored, open-necked shirt and his usual brown blazer, Colbert goofed around for a minute, his own face pixilated and voice modified to protect against a drone attack. (Some reports in the media suggested, with little evidence, that the United States was conducting a manhunt for Assange and seeking to detain him.) When that charade ended, he gave his guest a chance to explain US constitutional guarantees on freedom of speech and the press and the need for “the flow of information.”
Maintaining a light manner, Colbert said, “If we don’t know what the government is doing, we can’t be sad about it. Why are you trying to make me sad?” This produced a boyish grin from Assange. “You are trying to bum us out about the world. All of these terrible things are going on behind closed doors and you decided I needed to hear about it.”
“That’s just an interim state, Stephen, you’ll be happier about it later on,” Assange said, smiling again.
So far, a typical Colbert interview segment. But now Colbert got serious. “Let’s talk about this footage that has gotten you so much attention recently,” he said. “This is footage of an Apache helicopter attack in 2007. The army described this as a group that gave resistance during the fight, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. But there are armed men in the group, they did find a rocket-propelled grenade among the group, the Reuters photographers who were regrettably killed were not identified as photographers. And you have edited this tape, and you have given it a title called ‘Collateral Murder’. That’s not leaking, that’s a pure editorial.”