Wikileak's Assange Says Iraq Footage Framed for "Maximum Impact"
BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, April 13 2010
Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange was on Stephen Colbert's show last night, and Colbert (or was it Stephen Colbert playing "Colbert"?) grilled the soft-spoken Assange on why he made the decision to label the Apache footage of an 2007 attack in Iraq evidence of "collateral murder." (via Gawker) Said Colbert, "That's not leaking. That's a pure editorial." Assange's response sheds light on how he's thinking about Wikileaks' role.
"The promise that we make to our sources is not only will we defend them through every means that we have available, technological and legally and politically," said Assange calmly, "but we will try and get the maximum possible political impact for the material that they give to us, and..." There, Colbert interrupted. "So 'collateral murder' is to get political impact?" Assange responded by saying, "Yes, Absolutely."
Part of Assange's attempt to get maximum political response to the video is that Wikileak's short, 17-minute version of the video clip of the engagement that left up to a dozen people dead opens with a provocative George Orwell quote. "Political language," reads the quote, and the video card, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." In that 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell went on to deride phrases like jackboot, melting pot, and hotbed as useless and worn out. It's possible to see irony in the pairing of the phrase "collateral murder" with that particular piece of Orwell's wisdom.
Wikileaks also posted a 39-minute version of the events that it says is unedited that lacks the Orwell intro. On Colbert's show, Assange told the host, "Our promise to the public is that we will release the full source material so that if people have a different opinion, the full material is there for them to analyze and assess." Colbert was unconvinced, in a sarcastic way.
"Well, actually, then, I admire that," said Colbert. "I admire someone who is willing to put 'collateral murder' on the first thing that people see, knowing that they probably won't look at the rest of it." The crowd laughs, as does Assange. "That way you've properly manipulated the audience into the emotional state you want before something goes on the air. Because that is an emotional manipulation -- what you're about to see is 'collateral murder.' Now look at this completely objective bit of footage your about to show. That's journalism I can get behind." Assange conceded that "only one in ten people did look at the full footage."
Of course, triggering emotional reactions to shape the interpretation of experiences that follow -- something psychologists called priming -- is part of what media does. It's why Colbert comes onstage to screeching bald eagles and waving American flags. And it's why headlines in newspapers and on blog posts read the way that they do. What Wikileaks is up to is, as Colbert put it, editorial, and Assange comments on Colbert's show suggests that he knows it. Perhaps not for nothing is Wikileaks parent organization called Sunshine Press.
All of which is (one hopes) interesting, but you do have to wonder if "collateral murder" and the Orwell quotes were an unnecessary indulgence on Assange's part. Would the Apache footage not have gotten five-million-plus views and lit up the world without them?