The Mailbag: Entering the World of ‘WikiLeaks’

Posted by Michael Getler on

Last Wednesday evening, Aug. 3, the PBS NewsHour broadcast an interview with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, a now 10-year-old, self-proclaimed anti-secrecy, pro-transparency organization that has published, and in many cases analyzed, millions of classified or otherwise protected documents while giving the leakers and whistle-blowers the protection of anonymity.

Both Assange and WikiLeaks have been, and continue to be, the subject of both praise and controversy and it is not surprising that the interview, conducted remotely by NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff, drew a fair amount of mail to the ombudsman’s box. All of it was critical.

Just a few weeks earlier, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention that was set to nominate Hillary Clinton as its presidential nominee, WikiLeaks carried out one of its most high-profile data dumps, and the timing was intentional.

On July 22, three days before the DNC opened in Philadelphia, WikiLeaks released almost 20,000 emails and some 8,000 attachments from the internal correspondence of the Democratic National Committee. The release caused considerable embarrassment and damage to the committee and led to the swift resignation of its chairperson, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and several other top officials. There was no question that the material was authentic and revealing.

Furthermore, WikiLeaks said at the time that these leaks were only “part one of our new Hillary Leaks series.” So there is more to come, maybe much more, and that was part of what the NewsHour interview was aimed at.

Below is the video of the segment, which is well worth watching if you missed it. Below that are the letters from viewers, followed by some thoughts of mine.

But first, here is the way Woodruff introduced the segment, which I think was just right and is important to assessing what was aired and the comments of those viewers who wrote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While the Republican Party has seen its share of conflicts this week, recent events have also unearthed discord within the ranks of the Democrats as well. The hacking of Democratic National Committee e-mails, experts say by the Russian government, and the posting of e-mails on WikiLeaks, led to the resignation of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other top officials, and exposed rifts within the party. But the revelation also caused speculation about how WikiLeaks got them and why they released them. So, we decided to talk to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been holed up for four years to avoid extradition to the U.S.

And a ‘Clarification’

And I should also point out that, as viewers noted, Assange has not taken refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition to the U.S. The NewsHour ended its broadcast the following day with this clarification, which was also posted online:

 “And a clarification before we go. Last night, in the introduction to Julian Assange, we said that he was avoiding extradition to the U.S. We should have said he first faces extradition to Sweden for questioning over sexual assault allegations. From there, he could face possible charges in the U.S. related to releasing classified information.”

Here Are the Letters

I’m absolutely appalled at the timing of Judy Woodruff’s interview of Assange, who of course is an enemy of the United States. Seems to me it should have occurred to you guys, should have occurred to her, that it was a Russian active measure. That’s not conspiratorialist. That’s the thinking about the world, about the world of counterintelligence. You guys really, really, really should know better.


(Ombudsman’s Note: This was a phone call.)

~ ~ ~

Why is the NewsHour giving Julian Assange the time of day? He should not be interfering in the US elections and by interviewing him, Judy Woodruff gives him a platform in the US, with the hint of legitimacy.

Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

You did a decent job of questioning Julian Assange but I think you still let him off too easy. It is seemingly more and more like he favors "transparency," but only when it serves his personal agenda. Revenge is clearly personal. And THAT, in my opinion, disqualifies him as worthy of appearing on your show from this point on. He didn't answer the question about his personal motives, and you missed the opportunity to call him out on "selective transparency." Please don't give him air time anymore…he's just as bad as the far right in propaganda after this reveal.

Santa Fe, NM

~ ~ ~

Why did Judy Woodruff never ask Julian Assange why Wikileaks is only releasing DNC emails and not GOP emails during this election season? Especially when Assange acknowledged his personal animus towards Hillary Clinton? Release of only DNC emails gives impression of bias and meddling. These are natural questions and why didn't Woodruff ask them?

Timothy Raasch, Lititz, PA

~ ~ ~

Assange was given a forum in which [the] sole purpose was to find damning information on the Clinton campaign.

Bill Downey, Falmouth, MA

~ ~ ~

I write to protest strongly Judy Woodruff's interview with Julian Assange. Her interview began with a glaring factual error--Julian Assange is not in the Ecuadorian embassy in London avoiding extradition to the United States. He is avoiding extradition to Sweden on charges of rape. That said, I take strong exception to your giving him airtime as well as credibility by interviewing him. He is a foreigner who is blatantly trying to subvert our presidential election. You are, in essence, previewing his next attack on our democratic process. I have always appreciated your evenhanded approach to the news and your interviews, even when they do not agree with my liberal views. You have however, crossed a line interviewing Assange.

Reston, VA

~ ~ ~

Your credibility is hurt when you give Wikileaks so much air time. They are crooks, using stolen property to advance their own agenda.

Seattle, WA

~ ~ ~

Suddenly a Woodruff interview with Assange? At a moment when Trump is on the way down, has it not occurred to you that RUSSIA is providing Assange with material? I am not a conspiratorialist, but this is an obvious active measure and you are falling into the trap.

Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

We fail to understand what is so newsworthy about Julian Assange's activities; there was no mention of his criminal background until tonight [Aug. 4] and your interview just feeds his need to be in the spotlight.

Rancho Santa Fe, CA

~ ~ ~

I found the interview with Assange disgusting. When did U.S. Journalism fall into the toilet: when it does an interview with a dictator or demagogue (Assange) let alone the drippy thing behind him? You allow to use yourself as a propaganda tool of a disgusting and selectively damaging individual as well as Russia.

Anchorage, AK

My Thoughts

On the plus side, I think Assange is definitely newsworthy and that this turned out to be a timely and, ultimately, revealing interview for NewsHour viewers and, especially, for those seeking to follow more closely the drama surrounding this particular leak and its linkages.

I say that because if you watch the video or read the transcript you will see that Woodruff makes clear in her questioning that “we know you [Assange] have made clear your strong [antagonistic] feelings about Hillary Clinton…So, I think, why shouldn’t the American people assume there’s a political motive here [regarding the leak and the timing]?" At another point she says: “Why shouldn’t the American people look at this and say, this is an effort to undermine the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Party?”

Woodruff reads an earlier quote from Assange that says, in part: “She certainly shouldn’t become president.” So a champion of transparency via leaked official documents acknowledges in the interview that, “my personal analysis is that, if you are concerned about U.S. foreign policy and getting into foolish wars, then Hillary Clinton is not your woman.”

In my view, this exchange alone makes the interview worthwhile because, while it is well known among those who follow this stuff closely that Assange does not like Hillary Clinton, it sinks in more deeply for the general public when you can watch it unfold on television under questioning and helps viewers figure out what they think about all this.

I also included the brief introductory segment at the top of this column to point out that Woodruff, referring to the initial hacking into the committee’s emails, says “experts say by the Russian government.” But the possible Russian role does not come up in the actual interview except once briefly and dismissively by Assange at the close.

On the Minus Side…

I thought this interview got off to a rocky start and had trouble settling down.

Assange is a very articulate and skilled defender of his and his organization’s actions and the mischaracterization of the extradition situation right off the bat is surprising for an interview that one assumes involved a lot of preparation.

Assange also gained an advantage at the outset by saying he had “to correct” Woodruff because the difference between releasing DNC emails that had been obtained by WikiLeaks and “hacking” them was not explained carefully. WikiLeaks has never said how it obtained the documents. As noted, Woodruff herself, at the beginning of the segment, said experts believe the Russian government to be behind the actual hacking. So this seemed to me to be a confusion in the actual interview that could have been avoided.

This leads to a further question that, in my view, is speculative but undeniably fascinating about this affair but was only pursued in part. That is whether there may be some connection, as some have speculated publicly, between the suspected hacking of the DNC by the Russians, the dislike of Clinton by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the possible turning over of those emails to WikiLeaks via some Russian-linked entity or intermediary, the personal dislike of Clinton by Assange, the hints of a friendlier relationship between Putin and Donald Trump, and the timing of the release just before the Democratic convention.

Assange would never answer a question with so many allegations and moving parts. The strength of WikiLeaks has always been the credibility of the released documents rather than the circumstances surrounding it. But the asking of the question, in my personal opinion, may have helped viewers understand all the still untangled scenarios that may be surrounding this latest affair involving WikiLeaks and the U.S. election process.

Posted on Aug. 9, 2016 at 4:37 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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