America’s indictment of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act had barely been handed up than the press jumped right in with what it sees as the big news — that the case could endanger the press itself. Never mind the military secrets that Mr. Assange may have betrayed in the middle of a war. No, you can bet your last pixel that the story is first about us and the First Amendment.
Our eyes, for one, are dry. We’ve spent much of a long newspaper life trying to get people to tell us government secrets. We consider ourselves radical partisans of the First Amendment (including its injunctions against Congress abridging not only freedom of the press and speech but also the rights to exercise religion freely, to petition the government, and to peaceably assemble).
Yet in all the years that we’ve been drawing a paycheck from newspapers, we have never heard of a journalist trying to assist a source in breaking a code to access government computers, which is one thing Mr. Assange has been accused of doing in harness with Private Manning. We just don’t see that as the part of newspapering. Conspiring with a discontented GI to break a computer code would get any real journalist fired.
We understand that there are seasoned newspapermen who see the Trump administration as having crossed a line. That line would be, as, say, the New York Times argues the point, bringing charges under the Espionage Act to focus on “receiving and publishing classified material from a government source.” Quoth the Times: “That is something journalists do all the time.”
No doubt about it, we do that all the time. However, receiving in bulk vast troves — hundreds of thousands — of documents involving war-related secrets and publishing many of them in a time of active combat is not something journalists do all the time. It does not strike us as journalistic work. Nor does Mr. Assange’s alleged view of Wikileaks as an “intelligence agency of the people.”
What hubris. The American people know who their intelligence agencies are — the CIA, the NSA, the FBI. America did not appoint Wikileaks as any kind of intelligence agency. And if the allegation is accurate that being an “intelligence agency” is how Mr. Assange thinks of Wikileaks, it would only underline the jackleg nature of his journalism.
We understand that the government doesn’t get to decide who is or is not a journalist. That is left to the proprietors of printing equipment and other property of the press. We’ve been against licensing of journalists for as long as we have thought about the matter; it’s not for the government to decide. Even if Mr. Assange were a real reporter, though, it wouldn’t give him the right to break the law.
The fact is that newspapermen have to obey speed limits like everyone else. They can’t torture their sources. They can’t break in and pilfer. They guard military secrets in a time of war. Plus, too, real newspapermen and newspaperwomen don’t — in sharp contradistinction to Mr. Assange — cower under diplomatic cover in a foreign embassy for fear of having to look an American jury in the eye.
What a contrast to, say, Loy Maloney and Stanley Johnston. All American editors of a certain age know their story. They were the managing editor and a reporter of Chicago Tribune whom the government was fixing to charge with disclosing, inadvertently, that we’d cracked the Japanese code. They promptly walked into the prosecutor’s office and demanded to be put before a grand jury.
That is newspapermanliness. They didn’t cower in a foreign embassy. The grand jury refused to indict Maloney and Johnston. It had, as our legal system has time and again proven it has, the ability to draw a distinction. Even if the prosecution of Mr. Assange could have a chilling effect on the press, what about the chilling effect Wikileaks has had or could have on our GIs? They, after all, have their own standing.