How Julian Assange hijacked the American media
Six years ago, in cooperation with prestigious news organizations like The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, WikiLeaks began dumping the first of 251,287 pilfered cables that revealed the inner workings of American diplomacy. And a month before that, WikiLeaks released the Iraq War Logs: 391,832 field reports documenting, among other things, the deaths of 66,081 Iraqi civilians.
The Iraq War Logs arguably should have been more shocking than the Pentagon Papers. But the main response from Americans was a depressed shrug. Even The Washington Post shared that sentiment, observing that "many of the insights gleaned from the documents are not surprising by themselves."
It was clear that Americans didn't need a trove of leaked documents to give them a dim view of their government's transparency and honesty. It was also clear that, for the most part, they weren't going to bother to read much of what WikiLeaks published anyway.
Julian Assange came to understand this all too quickly. In fact, he may have understood it all along. His early efforts at posting documents online in hopes that crowdsourcing would take over failed, he said at a forum at UC Berkeley in 2010:
Our initial idea was that, look at all those people editing Wikipedia. Look at all the junk that they're working on. Surely, if you give them a fresh classified document about the human rights atrocities in Fallujah, that the rest of the world has not seen before … surely those people will step forward, given fresh source material and do something. [Julian Assange]
They did not.
So Assange adjusted his tactics. He wanted his leaks to be reported on, so he farmed out the diplomatic cables to four different newspapers in hopes of creating an appetite among journalists and news consumers. "You'd think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on," he said, "but that's absolutely not true. It's about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero."
Since then, Assange's understanding of the American media landscape has gotten even more sophisticated. And he used it to great (actually, awful) effect in the 2016 election.
Consider, for a moment, the concept of the "news cycle." It's actually an artifact of the modern era of 24-hour news. The word cycle implies that the news is something that repeats and resets. This is obviously no longer the way things work in the careening world of digital media. But Americans still largely buy into this concept. And applied to presidential campaigns, the idea of the "news cycle" assigns campaign stories something like an expiration date. If someone says something offensive on the campaign trail, the "news cycle" makes it seem unreasonable to file this to their permanent record. Instead, it suggests that the proper response is to gently let the incident age out of relevance and memory. Because of the news cycle, you've probably forgotten 90 percent of what happened in the 2016 campaign.
There's another phenomenon that similarly wraps the news in a cloak of ephemera: metaphors that compare campaigns to bodies. "Did Trump stop the bleeding?" a thousand news stories asked after the second presidential debate. The implication here is actually even worse than the news "cycle." These bodily metaphors suggest that a campaign is an organism and it can heal. Its injuries are impermanent. When the injuries in question pertain to (for example) a flurry of allegations of sexual assault, this metaphor becomes totally inadequate.
This sort of language strongly implies that missteps and even scandals aren't to be held against someone in any long-term way; they simply cease to matter after a certain time. There's no need for apologies, reparations, or hearings. Time heals all things.
The flip side of the logic tucked inside that metaphor is less forgiving: If the bleeding doesn't stop, then the misstep or scandal causing it was serious indeed.
If you're in possession of sensitive documents you want to leak, and you want to inflict maximal damage on a candidate, the recipe for injuring their campaign is obvious: Don't let the "wound" close. Keep dripping out emails, knowing perfectly well that a) the media will report that a new batch of emails has been leaked, and b) that very few people will actually take the trouble to read them, but will notice that time is not healing the thing, and the bleeding continues, cycle after cycle after cycle.
It's impossible to know whether Assange was thinking in precisely these terms. (He denied that WikiLeaks attempted to influence the election in a statement on Nov. 10.) But we do know he thinks carefully about how to "market" documents whose relevance he believes should have been self-evident. "Often it's the case that we have to do a lot of exploration and marketing of the material we publish ourselves to get a big political impact for it," he said to Democracy Now! in July. "But in this case, we knew, because of the pending [Democratic convention], because of the degree of interest in the U.S. election, we didn't need to establish partnerships with The New York Times or The Washington Post."
There might have been other reasons for him to forgo partnerships with newspapers: Namely, that coordinating with them could have dampened WikiLeaks' often sensational promotion of the contents. And despite Assange's repeated assurances that there were juicy scandals coming — and WikiLeaks using the hashtag #octobersurprise to promise giant, career-ending revelations — there wasn't actually all that much to find in emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign. "Newspapers and television networks have put hundreds of reporters to work combing through her campaign's emails, searching desperately for bombshells," wrote the L.A. Times. And there were a few — the revelation that Donna Brazile seems to have leaked town hall and debate questions to Clinton was particularly damning, and cost Brazile her job at CNN. Still, the major October Surprise never surfaced.
The damage, however, was extraordinary. WikiLeaks' slow-release approach forced journalists to cover each batch as new "revelations," even when there wasn't much to actually cover. Having learned through bitter experience that few Americans would bother to actually read them, WikiLeaks sprinkled emails into the news cycle and gave Americans the impression of a campaign wound so deep it couldn't heal. While Donald Trump rapid-cycled through scandals that seemed not to stick because they were so quickly displaced by fresh ones, "the emails" lingered in the public eye.
The effect was devastating. To quote a marketing book, "Damage is proportional to duration. Most companies can survive one day of bad news. It's when the story drags on and the crisis continues that your reputation suffers." By artificially prolonging the story, WikiLeaks conveyed the impression of wrongdoing so deep it transcended the amnesia we've come to expect from the news cycle; of a grievous wound that wouldn't heal and which — if we ever bothered to actually take a look at it — we'd find shocking indeed.