NY Times reporter defends profile of WikiLeaks’ Assange

Times reporter defends Assange piece
Times reporter defends Assange piece

New York Times reporter John F. Burns considers WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange — the subject of a front-page profile he co-authored Sunday— to be "an incredibly smart man" with an "extremely high IQ."

"But," Burns told The Upshot on Tuesday, "it's odd to me that a man so intelligent, and who calls himself a journalist, could be so unintelligent about the New York Times."

Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent and current London bureau chief, pushed back against Assange's contention that the Times engaged in "tabloid activity" when reporting a profile that Assange calls a error-ridden "hit piece."

Assange said Monday at London's Frontline Club that he wasn't surprised by the Times' recent coverage of him, given what he considers the paper's "absolutely disgusting" August profile of Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old army private suspected of supplying the classified documents to WikiLeaks. The Manning piece, Assange said, "removed all higher-level political motivations from him and psychoanalyzed him down to problems in his childhood and a demand for attention."

The WikiLeaks chief also questioned whether the Times simply employs "journalists with extremely bad character" or whether coverage of him and his whistleblower organization is influenced by the "realpolitik that [Times executive editor] Bill Keller has to go through in order to get out any story that depicts the U.S. military in a negative way."

John Burns fires back at Julian Assange
John Burns fires back at Julian Assange

Assange's harsh words for the Times comes after WikiLeaks provided the paper with more than 400,000 secret Iraq documents in advance of Friday's publication online — the largest intelligence leak in U.S. history. This summer, the organization also provided more than 75,000 Afghanistan documents to the Times weeks before July's massive leak. In response to those suggesting the Times has focused too heavily on Assange as opposed to the materials contained in the latest WikiLeaks leak, Burns noted that the paper's staff have "written many, many thousands of words about the documents." (The Times' extensive archive of Iraq and Afghanistan stories can be found here).

Burns said he doesn't "recall ever having been the subject of such absolutely, relentless vituperation" following a story in his 35 years at the Times. He said his email inbox has been full of denunciations from readers and a number of academics at top-tier schools such as Harvard, Yale, and MIT. Some, he said, used "language that I don't think they would use at their own dinner table." Such heated reactions to the profile, Burns said, shows "just how embittered the American discourse on these two wars has become."

In the 2,000-word piece — "WikiLeaks Chief On Run, Trailed By His Notoriety" — Burns and reporter Ravi Somaiya described Assange as the secretive and brilliant driving force behind the global document clearing house. But they also wrote how "some of his own comrades are abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood." They also noted the recent sexual assault allegations that two women in Sweden brought against Assange.

NY Times on WikiLeaks
NY Times on WikiLeaks

Salon's Glenn Greenwald called the profile a "sleazy hit piece" and wrote Sunday that it was "filled with every tawdry, scurrilous tabloid rumor" about the WikiLeaks founder. Greenwald likened Burns to the "Nixonian henchmen" who plotted against Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and described him as "one of the media's most enthusiastic supporters of the occupation of Iraq." (Burns has also received much praise for his years as the paper's Baghdad bureau chief, and I profiled him upon his leaving that position in 2007).

"The Iraq War is John Burns' war, and for the crime of making that war look bad, Julian Assange must have his character smeared and his psychiatric health maligned," Greenwald wrote. "Burns — along with his co-writer Ravi Somaiya — is happy to viciously perform that function."

Burns took issue with Greenwald's suggestion that he's "a borderline-sociopath" who's now coping with the guilt of having "enabled and cheered" on the Iraq war. "This is a man who has set out, as he sees it," Burns said of Greenwald, "to disparage a smear job and then engages in language like this, which is puzzling to say the least." [See Update]

The profile, Burns said, is "an absolutely standard journalistic endeavor that we would use with any story of similar importance in the United States." Burns said he spent three months working on the story and, along with colleagues, spoke with more than 30 sources affiliated with WikiLeaks — including Assange — five days before publication.

Burns added that the Times is "not in the business of hagiography" but in the "business of giving our readers the fullest context for these documents" and the Assange's motivations. "To suggest that doing that is some kind of grotesque journalistic sin, and makes me a sociopath," Burns said, "strikes me as pretty odd."

Burns hasn't been Assange's only media target of over the past few days.

Assange returned to CNN Monday night, just three days after walking out of a CNN interview after getting questioned about his personal legal issues and reports of growing staff dysfunction within WikiLeaks. Host Larry King — who initially thought the reclusive Assange walked off the set again — brought up the previous interview.

"We released 400,000 classified documents, the most extraordinary history of a war to have ever been released in our civilization," Assange said. "Those documents cover 109,000 deaths. That's a serious matter, and it's extraordinarily disrespectful to those people to start conflating the first revelation of that material with any sort of tabloid journalism. And CNN should know better, and I believe does know better than to do that."

Assange went on to say that matters concerning his personal life are not proportionate to what's been revealed in WikiLeaks' cache of Iraq war documents. "It is not right to bring in sensational and, in fact, false claims, a relatively trivial matter compared to the deaths of 109,000 people," Assange said. "And it is — I mean, CNN should be ashamed of doing that. And you, Larry, you actually should be ashamed, as well."

You can watch the Assange-King exchange below:

Assange did not respond to The Upshot's emails.

UPDATE: Greenwald has responded to Burns' comments in this piece, and said that he wasn't specifically calling the Times reporter a "sociopath." Greenwald explains:

"I didn't actually call Burns that. What I wrote was that, in light of what these documents reveal, "even" a borderline-sociopath would be awash with guilt over having supported this war and would be eager to distract attention away from that -- by belittling the importance of the documents and focusing instead on the messenger: Julian Assange. In other words, there's only one category of people who would not feel such guilt -- an absolute sociopath -- and I was generously assuming that Burns was not in that category, which is why I would expect (and hope) that he is driven by guilt over the war he supported. That's the most generous explanation I can think of for why -- in the face of these startling, historic revelations -- his journalistic choice was to pass on personality chatter about Assange."

(Photo of Assange in London on Oct. 23: Lennart Preiss/AP. Photo of John Burns: the "Charlie Rose Show")