Taking Julian Assange seriously: considering WikiLeaks’ role in the US presidential campaign

In the final months of the US presidential campaign, Julian Assange returned to form, injecting into the election new questions about politics and politicians, and reigniting a discussion of WikiLeaks’ particular brand of digital journalism. 

At a time when attention was on what we hoped to know about Donald Trump – his tax releases, his income, his suitability for office – WikiLeaks presented us with a series of email releases about Clinton – from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and campaign manager John Podesta – that instead posed new questions about Clinton in the late stages of a campaign that seemed increasingly heading for victory.

The first reaction was of conspiracy – targeting Clinton seemed anathema to the ‘general consensus’, such that it was. This risked a liberal order, where Trump represented a decline of Western democracy, and while fallible, Clinton could preserve such a world. Assange was seen as colluding with Russian hackers (casting doubt on the material), disrupting democratic norms (leading to a severing of his internet access while campaigns concluded), and of going after the wrong target (pining for as revelatory a release about Trump). This last accusation was made with such strength that WikiLeaks responded with its vision of journalism: “an open model of journalism that gatekeepers are uncomfortable with, but which is perfectly harmonious with the First Amendment.”

To make sense of WikiLeaks in this context, however, requires understanding its dual mission: As journalism, and as a sharp critic of the same. 

Since its emergence, WikiLeaks sought to irritate dominant notions of journalism, attacking mainstream journalism as complacent, while advocating that for the public which journalism should serve, WikiLeaks’ approach was in their interest. We are also reminded in these disclosures that Assange’s philosophy (as it can be discerned) has never fit ‘left’ versus ‘right’ ideologies easily, and rather is oriented sharply against the ‘powerful’. As an editor, Assange expresses this through familiar journalistic ideals as a watchdog, and a strong commitment to the public. Hillary Clinton, first as Secretary of State and then as candidate, has been a symbol of the way power has been consolidated within a small circle of actors, and frequent subject of WikiLeaks’ focus.

The late David Carr captured this well when he headlined a piece exploring WikiLeaks and compatriots in 2010 as “Journalists, Provocateurs, maybe both?”. In its simplicity, this outlines the challenge WikiLeaks presents not only as a prominent voice in the news, but also as an organization that moves ably between journalistic and activist roles, with little consternation of whether that suits dominant persuasions of either.

This latest episode reminds us as well of the capability of digitally adept actors to be particularly disruptive when donning a journalistic mantle: an embarrassed Debbie Wasserman-Schultz stepped down from DNC leadership after emails showed she favored Clinton over Bernie Sanders, leaks in the Podesta ‘tranche’ revealed Democratic operative Donna Brazile sharing a debate question with the campaign, prompting her resignation as an analyst for CNN, and long the subject of speculation the Podesta emails also gave the public its first glimpse of Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street (fittingly the focus was on maintaining ‘private’ and ‘public’ positions on policy, something made difficult by new journalistic actors like Julian Assange).

Finally, for understanding the challenges WikiLeaks presents to journalism, one has to see that the reaction to disregard their approach to journalism indicates a tendency to valorize certain traditions of journalism that dictate what is permissible– a ‘good’ way to do journalism based on traditional norms. Yet when we look at journalism’s socio-functional roles (news and journalism shaping, informing, and challenging our understanding of society) we can find in WikiLeaks’ work at least an embrace of these notions, even if it does so while irritating prominent visions of what journalism is or drifting towards conspiracy.

A week after the US elections, a photo was posted online at Gizmodo.com of a cat, wearing a necktie, parading around in a window of the Ecuadorian Embassy. This cat is just the sort of clichéd image we have come to expect traipsing across the internet, but for the seriousness of the cat’s owner, Julian Assange, a man whose public persona exudes anything but frivolity, and whose embrace of digital technologies and media are anything but clichéd.

Dismissed in the headline as “bored and irrelevant, Julian Assange…”, the tail end of the US campaign has shown that rather than irrelevant (though possibly still bored), Assange and his inclination to expose information continues to shape how we are able to view the world, and the way journalism is embraced by an increasingly vast set of actors working online. Irritating to some, uncomfortable to many, WikiLeaks’ approach to sharing news and information has once again placed on center stage provocative questions about what it is to ‘do’ journalism in the 21st century.