Vanity Fair: Julian Assange Threatened to Sue The Guardian

Vanity Fair's Sarah Ellison has penned an extraordinary look into the relationship between Wikileaks and the traditional journalism outfits that have collaborated with it:

On the afternoon of November 1, 2010, Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks.org, marched with his lawyer into the London office of Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian. Assange was pallid and sweaty, his thin frame racked by a cough that had been plaguing him for weeks. He was also angry, and his message was simple: he would sue the newspaper if it went ahead and published stories based on the quarter of a million documents that he had handed over to The Guardian just three months earlier. The encounter was one among many twists and turns in the collaboration between WikiLeaks--a four-year-old nonprofit that accepts anonymous submissions of previously secret material and publishes them on its Web site--and some of the world's most respected newspapers. The collaboration was unprecedented, and brought global attention to a cache of confidential documents--embarrassing when not disturbing--about American military and diplomatic activity around the world. But the partnership was also troubled from the start.

In Rusbridger's office, Assange's position was rife with ironies. An unwavering advocate of full, unfettered disclosure of primary-source material, Assange was now seeking to keep highly sensitive information from reaching a broader audience. He had become the victim of his own methods: someone at WikiLeaks, where there was no shortage of disgruntled volunteers, had leaked the last big segment of the documents, and they ended up at The Guardian in such a way that the paper was released from its previous agreement with Assange--that The Guardian would publish its stories only when Assange gave his permission. Enraged that he had lost control, Assange unleashed his threat, arguing that he owned the information and had a financial interest in how and when it was released....

The partnership between The Guardian and WikiLeaks brought together two desperately ambitious organizations that happen to be diametric opposites in their approach to reporting the news. One of the oldest newspapers in the world, with strict and established journalistic standards, joined up with one of the newest in a breed of online muckrakers, with no standards at all except fealty to an ideal of "transparency"--that is, dumping raw material into the public square for people to pick over as they will. It is very likely that neither Alan Rusbridger nor Julian Assange fully understood the nature of the other's organization when they joined forces. The Guardian, like other media outlets, would come to see Assange as someone to be handled with kid gloves, or perhaps latex ones--too alluring to ignore, too tainted to unequivocally embrace. Assange would come to see the mainstream media as a tool to be used and discarded, and at all times treated with suspicion. Whatever the differences, the results have been extraordinary. Given the range, depth, and accuracy of the leaks, the collaboration has produced by any standard one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years. While the leaks haven't produced a single standout headline that rises above the rest--perhaps because the avalanche of headlines has simply been overwhelming--the texture, context, and detail of the WikiLeaks stories have changed the way people think about how the world is run. Many comparisons have been made between the leak of these documents and Daniel Ellsberg's 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. By today's standards, Ellsberg's actions look quaint: one man handed files to one news organization. The WikiLeaks documents are as revealing as the Pentagon Papers, but their quantity and range are incomparably greater. And they speak even more powerfully to the issue of secrecy itself. The collaboration of newspaper and Web site was never a marriage--more an arrangement driven by expedience, and a rocky one at that--but it will forever change the relationship between whistle-blowers and the media on which they rely.

Read the whole piece at Vanity Fair.

Jack Shafer's take on the revelations at Slate, "The 1,000 Faces of Julian Assange," is also worth a read.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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