Julian Assange was arrested inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London on April 11. The Australian-born co-founder of Wikileaks had been trapped in the building since 2012 after taking refuge there. He was immediately found guilty of failing to surrender to a British court, and was taken to Belmarsh prison. An extradition to the United States is widely seen as imminent by corporate media, who have, by and large, strongly approved of these events.
A Washington Post editorial (4/11/19) claimed Assange was “no free-press hero” and insisted the arrest was “long overdue.” Likewise, the Wall Street Journal (4/11/19) demanded “accountability” for Assange, saying, “His targets always seem to be democratic institutions or governments.”
Other coverage was more condemnatory still. The View’s Meghan McCain (4/11/19) declared she hoped Assange “rots in hell.” Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost (4/13/19) said it was “so satisfying to see an Internet troll get dragged out into the sunlight.” But it was perhaps the National Review (4/12/19) that expressed the most enthusiastic approval of Assange’s arrest, condemning him for his “anti-Americanism, his antisemitism and his raw personal corruption” and for harming the US with his “vile spite.”
Both the United Nations and the ACLU have denounced Assange’s arrest, with the former condemning Sweden and the UK for depriving him of liberty and freedom, ordering them to pay compensation for the many years he was confined to the embassy. Despite this, establishment media have overwhelmingly described this situation with a euphemism: Mr. Assange’s “self-imposed isolation” (CNN, 4/11/19; USA Today, 4/11/19; New York Times, 4/11/19), a phrase that conjures a very different image of the situation and the responsibilities of the various parties involved. The Daily Beast (4/11/19) made this implication explicit, describing Assange’s predicament as “voluntary confinement.”
Assange is a controversial character who originally took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy after England’s High Court ruled to extradite him to Sweden to face charges of rape. Yet most of the media coverage downplayed or even did not mention this (e.g., Bloomberg, 4/11/19; National Review, 4/12/19; Daily Beast, 4/11/19), suggesting they did not consider it relevant.
The universal charge of narcissism
Celebrating his arrest, The Week (4/11/19) attacked Assange as a “delusional, childish narcissist” who undermined the security of every nation. A host of other media outlets across the spectrum (Washington Post, 4/12/19; New York Times, 4/12/19; London Times, 4/7/19) similarly framed him as a “narcissist,” one with an “outsized view of his own importance,” despite his poor “personal hygiene,” according to the New York Times (4/11/19).
The narcissist accusation is a common trope thrown at enemies of the US establishment, including Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez (National Review, 6/27/07; Economist, 3/9/13; Miami Herald, 7/25/15), Vladimir Putin (Atlantic, 4/15/14; Guardian, 3/10/18) and even Bernie Sanders (Huffington Post, 2/9/16; New York, 11/25/18). It was also exactly the same line of attack the media used against Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked NSA documents (e.g., New Yorker, 6/10/13; Bloomberg, 11/1/13; Chicago Tribune, 12/23/14), and how the prosecution portrayed Chelsea Manning at her trial, suggesting it is a convenient putdown rather than a good-faith description of anti-establishment figures.
Manning had offered the files that came to be known as the Iraq War Logs to both the Washington Post and New York Times. However, only Wikileaks decided to publish them. The files showed evidence of US war crimes in the Middle East, and shot both Manning and Assange onto the world stage.
The UK press reaction
The infamously acerbic British press responded to Assange’s arrest with undisguised glee. The Daily Mail’s front-page headline (4/12/19) read, “That’ll Wipe the Smile Off His Face,” and devoted four pages to the “downfall of a narcissist” who was removed from “inside his fetid lair” to finally “face justice.” The Daily Mirror (4/11/19) described him as “an unwanted guest who abused his hospitality,” while the Times of London (4/12/19) claimed “no one should feel sorry” for the “overdue eviction.”
The Mirror (4/13/19) also published an opinion piece from Labour member of Parliament Jess Phillips that began by stating, “Finally Julian Assange, everyone’s least favorite squatter, has been kicked out of the Ecuadorian embassy.” She described the 47-year-old Australian as a “grumpy, stroppy teenager.”
At the far-left of the corporate media spectrum, the New Statesman (4/12/19) described Assange as a “demented-looking gnome.” The Glasgow Herald editorial board (4/13/19) summed up the press reaction: “Julian Assange is not a journalist, and he’s not a hero, and his day in court is long overdue.”
Is Assange a journalist?
The central question of whether Assange a journalist has been discussed at great length this week in corporate media. The resounding response has been “no.”
The National Review (4/12/19) declared him a “petty, biased, hostile foreign actor”; CNN (4/11/19) described him as an activist, not a journalist, demanding he “face justice.” Fox News (4/12/19) also labeled him an activist, one who is using journalism as a “fig leaf for his reckless conduct.” Other outlets (Bloomberg, 4/11/19; Washington Post, 4/11/19) have also been eager to insist Assange is not a journalist.
The New York Times editorial board (4/11/19) writes that while Assange’s arrest will likely raise questions about press freedom, for now, the Trump administration has “done well” by charging the “scraggly-bearded refugee” with an “indisputable crime.” They argue that there is currently technically no First Amendment issue because he is no journalist but a “foreign agent seeking to undermine the security of the United States through theft,” who highlights the “sharp line between legitimate journalism and dangerous cybercrime.”
Veteran journalist and supporter of Assange John Pilger disagrees, contending that his arrest is a historically important warning to “real journalists,” who are few and far between at establishment media, who resent him for highlighting their subservience to the elite.
Whatever your view of Assange might be, it seems clear he shares virtually nothing in common with those in positions of influence in big media outlets, who have been only too happy to watch his demise.
Featured image: Bloomberg depiction (4/11/19) of Julian Assange, described as looking “like a cranky, beleaguered version of Santa Claus.”