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Last month, shortly after police dragged Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, out of Ecuador’s embassy in London, the United States said it would seek his extradition. Journalists and press-freedom watchers—many of whom dislike Assange—waited anxiously for details of the charges; the Justice Department, they feared, was prepared to indict Assange for practices relevant to journalism, possibly under the Espionage Act. Later that day, when the charge was made public, some breathed a sigh of relief: Assange was to face a single count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, for helping Chelsea Manning crack a password, which is not something reporters typically do. Many press advocates, however, warned that the indictment contained some gray areas, and that further charges would likely follow. A separate, recently unsealed affidavit in Assange’s case added cause for concern. It discussed publishing, and borrowed language from the Espionage Act.
Yesterday, the situation took a grave turn. US authorities outlined 18 additional charges against Assange, 17 of which fall under the Espionage Act. All of the charges arose from sharing classified intelligence documents and diplomatic cables that Manning passed to WikiLeaks for publication. Assange faces a maximum sentence of 175 years. Briefing reporters, Justice Department officials insisted that they were not trying to criminalize journalism—most of the counts, they stressed, result from how Assange obtained information; those related to publication are narrow in scope, concerning only a handful of documents that identified US intelligence sources in dangerous places. (Many journalists consider Assange’s publication of such details to have been grossly unethical.) “Julian Assange is no journalist,” John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said.
The government should not get to decide who is and isn’t a journalist. And drawing a distinction is beside the point. “The question isn’t whether Assange is a journalist, but whether the government’s legal theory threatens freedom of the press,” Carrie DeCell, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, wrote on Twitter. “It does. The government argues that Assange violated the Espionage Act by soliciting, obtaining, and then publishing classified information. That’s exactly what good national security and investigative journalists do every day.” The solicitation charges are based on open calls for information that WikiLeaks posted on its website, a practice common to many news organizations. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said that the charges pose “a dire threat”; the Freedom of the Press Foundation called them “terrifying.” Ted Boutros, a prominent media lawyer, said that the US government wants to use Assange’s bad name to cover for a dangerous precedent. “There’s a real element of picking the weakest of the herd, or the most unpopular figure, to try to blunt the outcry,” Boutros told The New York Times.
Troubling legal clampdowns on press freedom have been on the rise since the latter days of the George W. Bush administration. Until now, however, the Justice Department has mostly used the Espionage Act to prosecute staffers who have leaked information to journalists. The charges against Assange represent a sharp departure, since this is the first time a publisher has been indicted under the law. (The Obama administration considered taking this step against Assange, but ultimately decided against it.)
It’s far from clear whether the charges against Assange will stand up in court. It’s also unclear whether Assange will ever even face an American judge: Sweden is seeking to extradite him as part of a recently reopened rape investigation, and the latest heavy-handed US charges might not sit well with British courts, which have the power to decide where Assange goes next. With yesterday’s indictment, however, this story is no longer really about Assange. It’s the clearest example yet that in the US, the practice of journalism is at risk.
Below, more on the government’s legal threats to press freedom:
- The law as a sword: Manning, who is in jail for refusing to testify about Assange before a grand jury, released a statement following yesterday’s charges accepting “full and sole responsibility” for disclosing information to WikiLeaks. “This administration describes the press as the opposition party and an enemy of the people,” she said. “Today, they use the law as a sword, and have shown their willingness to bring the full power of the state against the very institution intended to shield us from such excesses.”
- The Espionage Act as a chainsaw: Two weeks ago, the Justice Department charged Daniel Hale, a former National Security Agency analyst, under the Espionage Act, alleging that he leaked classified information to a journalist. The recipient was not named, but is widely believed to have been Jeremy Scahill, of The Intercept. This week, Scahill posted a 10-minute video on Trump’s war on leaks. The administration is “using the Espionage Act like a chainsaw,” he said.
- The tip of the iceberg: In 2013, the Obama administration subpoenaed phone records belonging to the Associated Press and several of its reporters as part of a leak investigation. The move was widely condemned, but according to a new report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, it wasn’t the end of the story: the Justice Department also considered subpoenaing the Times, The Washington Post, and ABC News. Ramya Krishnan and Trevor Timm round up the findings for CJR.
Other notable stories:
- Theresa May, the British prime minister, is stepping down. May’s position finally became untenable after the certain demise of her Brexit deal; she will stay on as prime minister while the ruling Conservative Party chooses a new leader to replace her. (The race is likely to be crowded; Boris Johnson is the favorite.) For much of May’s tenure, domestic and foreign media portrayed her as a subject of pity and ridicule. Often, that was justified. But coverage also skewed sexist: a 2018 study by King’s College London found that the media’s early treatment of May was more gendered than its coverage of Margaret Thatcher after she took office in 1979.
- Trump has declared war on Nancy Pelosi, and his internet minions have rallied behind him. Yesterday, doctored video footage of Pelosi—slowed down and modified for pitch to make her sound drunk—went viral on social media. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, was among those who shared the video. (He later deleted it.) Fox News cut together its own misleading video of Pelosi. Last night, Trump tweeted it. “Spreaders of misinformation don’t need sophisticated technology to go viral,” the Post’s Drew Harwell writes. “Even simple, crude manipulations can be used to undermine an opponent or score political points.”
- Jay Fielden is out as editor of Esquire. Fielden cited “the lure of new possibilities,” but Marc Tracy reports, for the Times, that a decision by executives at Hearst, which owns Esquire, to kill a blockbuster #MeToo story about Bryan Singer, the Hollywood director, “weighed on” Fielden. (The Singer piece was finally published in The Atlantic; in February, its authors, both on the masthead at Esquire, spoke to CJR.) According to the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly, Fielden has “differed” with the direction taken by Troy Young, Hearst’s president, since Young’s appointment last year.
- Yesterday, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, ordered all city agencies to direct at least half of their annual print and online ad spending to community and ethnic media outlets. The move aims, in part, to help smaller titles stay solvent; de Blasio, who has had a tense relationship with the New York press corps since taking office, insisted that the ad buys would not be dependent on favorable coverage. David Brand has more for the Queens Daily Eagle.
- For CJR, Nick Pinto writes that covering the New York City Police Department is an impossible task, given the NYPD’s lack of transparency. Recently, reporters, including Pinto, have struggled to cover the administrative trial of Daniel Pantaleo—the officer charged with killing Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man, in 2014—due to a lack of available documents and limited space in the courtroom. The final recommendation and decision in the case will be secret. Pinto spoke with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker.
- In March, prosecutors in Chicago dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett, the Empire actor who, police alleged, had falsely claimed he was the victim of a hate crime. The same day the charges were dismissed, Smollett’s attorneys succeeded in sealing all evidence and records related to his case. Several media outlets objected; yesterday, a judge ordered that the records be unsealed, in part because Smollett undercut his privacy argument by seeking publicity. NBC News has more.
- For Vanity Fair, Joe Pompeo reports that the Times has become “a book-deal factory” of late; with many high-profile reporters requesting book leave, editors are concerned that they’ll be shorthanded on key beats. Earlier this month, Dean Baquet, editor of the Times, and Carolyn Ryan, assistant managing editor, wrote staffers with a reminder: “The Company reserves the right to deny a book leave request for any reason. Our journalistic needs must come first.”
- This week, two French newspapers declined a joint interview with Emmanuel Macron, the country’s president, because Macron’s office wanted to approve his quotes prior to publication. That practice is common among French politicians and media, but, in recent years, has become the subject of increased debate. For CJR, I assess the arguments.
- And from noon today, you can check out “National Enquirer Live!”—an amusement park installation in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, inspired by the controversial tabloid of the same name. According to The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, the attraction has exhibits exploring notable conspiracy theories, including several around the death of Princess Diana; visitors “can watch a 3D, computerized model tracing Diana’s last moments.”
In January 2018, alarmed by the spread of misinformation around Britain’s “Brexit” referendum and the aftermath of Russian trolling on Facebook during the 2016 US election, the European Union convened a “high-level” working group filled with experts from media and academia—as well as representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter—to look at the scope of the problem and recommend solutions. This past fall, that group came out with an agreed upon “code of practice,” including a commitment to make political advertising more transparent. But, according to a new report from Investigate Europe, the proposals were watered down after both Facebook and Google put pressure on participants behind the scenes (neither company had responded to a request for comment from CJR by press time).
“We were blackmailed,” said Monique Goyens, director-general of the European Consumer Association, according to the report, which was published by Open Democracy. In her account, Goyens and other members of the group suggested that an EU commissioner should look into whether Facebook’s business model played a role in spreading misinformation, but Richard Allan—the company’s director for public policy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa—warned her that doing so would be very controversial. An anonymous source told Investigate Europe that Allan later made an explicit threat, saying, “If we did not stop talking about competition tools [ways of enabling competition through policy], Facebook would stop its support for journalistic and academic projects,” according to the source. In other words, the EU working group was allegedly pressured not to criticize Facebook with threats to funding.
There was also more subtle pressure to agree with the interests of Facebook and Google, according to Goyens and others who were unnamed. That pressure came from journalistic entities funded by the tech companies, some of whom allegedly didn’t disclose their conflicts. “The Google people did not have to fight too hard for their position,” one group member told Investigate Europe, because “they had some allies at the table.” The Investigate Europe report mentioned that the Oxford-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism gets Google funding for its annual digital news report, and both Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network and the First Draft fact-checking project get funding through Google’s Digital News Initiative. (All three get funding from other sources as well, and disclose their Google funding. The ones who allegedly didn’t disclose aren’t named.)
As reported by CJR in May 2018, Facebook and Google either provided or promised a combined $600 million in funding for journalistic startups, fellowships, training, and other purposes between 2017 and early 2018. Google started the Digital News Initiative, while Facebook has the Journalism Project, the Local Journalism Accelerator program, and a number of other efforts that fund things like the News Integrity Initiative at CUNY. One of the fears expressed by a number of journalism observers was that all of this funding largesse from the technology giants would create a conflict of interest—or at least the perception of one—should those entities ever want to criticize the platforms.
Alexios Mantzarlis, who used to run the International Fact-Checking Network and was one of the members of the EU working group, says he feels the reports of shady backroom pressure from the tech companies are overdone. “The reality was less House of Cards and more Veep,” he said on Twitter, referring to a popular drama about Machiavellian maneuvering in Washington vs. a popular comedy about the White House. The tech giants lobbied for their positions, he says, but so did media companies who participated in the working group. That said, however, a number of the EU critics who spoke to Investigate Europe said they believe the resulting report from the fall was rendered toothless in part because of lobbying from the tech companies—and the support they got from some of the media entities they fund.
More on the EU’s effort to fight misinformation:
- A Flood: According to a new report from the online activist group Avaaz, there has been a flood of far-right disinformation leading up to the European Union elections, which start today. The group found 500 suspicious pages and groups, which it reported to Facebook, and 200 of those have since been removed. Together, these fake accounts got more than 500 million views—several times more than the legitimate pages and accounts that were set up by politicians and parties involved in the vote.
- Anti-Muslim: While the disinformation leading up to the UK’s Brexit vote focused on the dangers of either remaining in or leaving the EU, the kind of propaganda that has been seen leading up to the EU vote is focused on hot-button issues like immigration, according to the market research firm Alto Data Analytics. Its research showed a number of sites created specifically to push an anti-Muslim agenda.
- Junk News: Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project says its research found that less than 4 percent of the sources on Twitter before the EU elections consisted of “junk news” (outright fakes or sensationalized news), with the exception of Poland, where junk news made up 21 percent of traffic. And while the proportion of fake news was also small on Facebook, individual fakes “can still hugely outperform even the best, most important professionally produced stories” on the platform, the group said.
- Stratcom: The European Union has a special unit aimed at fighting disinformation that specifically comes from Russia, a program it set up in 2015. It is run by the European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force, and says its work is designed “to better forecast, address and respond to pro-Kremlin disinformation.” The unit also publishes an email newsletter called The Disinformation Review.
Other notable stories:
- Maitreyi Anantharaman writes for CJR about how coverage of the Women’s National Basketball Association suffered at many media outlets during the early 2000s, due to diminishing resources, but the beat has become much more popular as interest in the league has risen steadily and newsrooms have decided they need more unique coverage as a way of making their content stand out online. In some cases, sponsors help support the reporting.
- Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri who sits on the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, writes in an opinion piece for USA Today that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are “parasites” on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, and on a healthy society, and suggests that we might be better off if Facebook disappeared from the information landscape.
- Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams, who is now running the publishing platform Medium, told CNN that when it comes to using Twitter, Donald Trump is “a master of the platform” with few equals. “What he has done is pretty genius, actually,” Williams said. But the Medium founder said that the negative effects of the president’s tweets pale in comparison to the “destructive power” of mainstream media outlets like Fox News.
- A senior correspondent for Le Monde, a leading newspaper in France, was summoned for questioning by the national security division of the French police after reporting extensively on a corruption scandal involving French president Emmanuel Macron. What is being called the “Benalla affair” began as a story about misconduct by a former aide to the president, but has led to allegations of a cover-up by the French government.
- The Boston Globe now has more subscribers paying for its digital product than it does for its print product, a landmark that only a few major newspapers have reached, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton says. In part that’s because print subscriptions to the paper has declined sharply, but Benton argues that crossing that mark “clarifies that you’re now a digital news organization with a print product, not the other way around. It means your default audience is now online, and future resource allocation can reflect that.”
- Two respected Russian journalists were forced to quit their jobs at Kommersant, the country’s leading political and business newspaper, after they refused to identify the sources they used for a story on a political shakeup in Moscow. After they were forced to leave, 13 of their colleagues announced they were quitting the paper in solidarity, including all the reporters working for the Kommersant‘s political desk.
- The Brexit Party in the UK agreed to lift a ban on Channel 4 that it imposed earlier this week, which blocked the channel from party events. The broadcaster initially said the six-week ban appeared to be retaliation for an investigative report that it aired into party leader Nigel Farage’s finances. The party, however, said the ban—which was implemented before the Farage report—was a result of misbehavior by the network, which the party accused of lying in order to get access to a campaign rally. Channel 4 denied the accusations.
- An independent review of Radio and Television Martí, the government-owned sister network to Voice of America that broadcasts to Spanish-language audiences in Cuba, found that the network failed to meet basic standards of journalistic fairness. Last month, an anchor for the network described Trump administration officials as the “dream team” for Cuba policy, according to the independent review board, and Martí has also been criticized for airing anti-Semitic segments about financier George Soros.
- Nan Winton, the first woman to read the news on the BBC, has passed away. Winton, whose real name was Nancy Wigginton, became the first TV newsreader at the British broadcaster in 1960. She was an experienced journalist who had worked on Panorama and Town and Around before she joined the BBC, but her appearance on the network was criticized by those who felt women were “too frivolous” to read the news.