John Colson: Hit and Run | AspenTimes.com

John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

I couldn’t believe what I was watching.

Here was a 60 Minutes reporter, Steve Kroft, badgering WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about his motives, and implying by word choice, body language and facial expressions that Assange was wrong in both his actions and his entire philosophy.

It was last Sunday, when the fabled CBS news magazine devoted two of its three segments to Assange and the whole WikiLeaks brouhaha. I could imagine Don Hewitt, 60 Minutes’ legendary creator and producer, rolling over in his grave.

I should say that, at one point in my life, I revered 60 Minutes as the only example of broadcast journalism as I believe it should be – fearless, probing and determinedly in the business of ferreting out the truth of things in the halls of power.

Of course, Kroft is part of the new generation at 60 Minutes, having arrived in 1989, a few years before some of the show’s most embarrassing moments, involving a report on the Brown and Williamson tobacco giant (1995). That was when the CBS management caved in to a threat of lawsuits and gutted a segment exposing the tobacco industry’s scheme for boosting the addictive qualities of their cigarettes. I mention this series of gaffes as examples of how the show’s verve and mission have waned over the years.

But back to 2011, here was Kroft obliquely berating Assange, repeatedly questioning him about perceptions that he is anti-American, that his goal is to embarrass the U.S. exclusively, that he puts U.S. spies in danger, and mis-characterizing what WikiLeaks does.

The organization, as clearly stated by Assange and on its website, is in the business of bringing raw information to the public from sources best known as “whistleblowers.” Those are people who follow the adage, “If you see something, say something,” as applied to places where they work, usually some branch of government, the financial industry or the military, and not exclusively in the U.S.

Now, it seems to me that what WikiLeaks does is, in a different format and with far different methods, a lot like what 60 Minutes used to do with pride. It takes information from people who believe they have witnessed injustice, or criminal acts, or some other kind of institutional wrong, and who wish to reveal it to the general public.

WikiLeaks does not go out and, on its own initiative, dig into secrets or solicit classified information. WikiLeaks is not a spy organization. All it does is open the door to whatever information some whistleblower feels should be known by humanity at large.

Apparently the organization, which is a nonprofit, gets a lot more information in than it puts out. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of rumored documents relating to the worldwide financial meltdown, which are likely to cause some pretty serious discomfort in certain quarters, both financial and governmental.

The rumors of this WikiLeaks trove began circulating late last year, but as of Feb. 3 (my deadline for this column), the website had not released it.

Regardless, my point here is that I do not like seeing 60 Minutes convert itself from a watchdog, eyeballing and exposing government paranoia, hypocrisy and misdeeds, to a guard dog protecting that same hypocrisy and paranoia.

I believe WikiLeaks performs a valuable service, a public service, and I want my government to back off in its headlong attempts to discredit and even destroy the website and its founder.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the charges of sexual assault filed against Assange, and it should stay that way. The two issues may well represent divergent parts of the same man’s complex psyche, and if he has committed the crimes he is accused of, then he should be punished for same.

But punishment for the one cannot become justification for persecution against the cause of free speech and the free flow of information.

That way lies authoritarianism, a road we do not want to go down any further than we already have.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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