WASHINGTON — Not so long ago, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could count on American journalists to support his campaign to publish secret documents that banks and governments didn’t want the world to see.
But just three years after a major court confrontation that saw many of America’s most important journalism organizations file briefs on WikiLeaks’ behalf, much of the U.S. journalistic community has shunned Assange — even as reporters write scores, if not hundreds, of stories based on WikiLeaks’ trove of leaked State Department cables.
Some call him a traitor, responsible for what’s arguably one of the biggest U.S. national security breaches ever. Others say a man who calls for government transparency has been too opaque about how he obtained the documents.
The freedom of the press committee of the Overseas Press Club of America in New York City declared him “not one of us.” The Associated Press, which once filed legal briefs on Assange’s behalf, refuses to comment about him. And the National Press Club in Washington, the venue less than a year ago for an Assange news conference, has decided not to speak out about the possibility that he’ll be charged with a crime.
With a few notable exceptions, it’s been left to foreign journalism organizations to offer the loudest calls for the U.S. to recognize WikiLeaks’ and Assange’s right to publish under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Assange supporters see U.S. journalists’ ambivalence as inviting other government efforts that could lead one day to the prosecution of journalists for doing something that happens fairly routinely now — writing news stories based on leaked government documents.
“Bob Woodward has probably become one of the richest journalists in history by publishing classified documents in book after book. And yet no one would suggest that Bob Woodward be prosecuted because Woodward is accepted in the halls of Washington,” said Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and media critic who writes for the online journal Salon.com. “There is no way of prosecuting Julian Assange without harming investigative journalism.”
Woodward, who rose to fame by exposing the Watergate conspiracy that forced President Richard Nixon from office, told a Yale University law school audience in November that WikiLeaks’ “willy-nilly” release of documents was “madness” and would be “fuel for those who oppose disclosure.” But that appearance came before U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder launched a criminal probe against Assange. Woodward didn’t respond to e-mails seeking comment.
Woodward’s newspaper, The Washington Post, however, is one of the few that’s editorialized against prosecuting Assange. “The government has no business indicting someone who is not a spy and who is not legally bound to keep its secrets,” the Post said.