Julian Assange on '60 Minutes'

Julian Assange appeared last night on 60 Minutes to defend himself and his organization, WikiLeaks. He was interviewed by Steve Kroft, who made some amazingly dopey remarks for a press honcho.

Kroft: Do you want me to give you my characterization of what I think people think?

[No! we yelled at the television.]

Assange: Sure.

Kroft: Mysterious. Little weird. A cult-like figure. Little paranoid.

Kroft’s heavy-handed, old-white-guy shtick created something of an unsympathetic or “hard-hitting” impression, but it’s clear from the resulting program that the show’s producers were very sympathetic to Assange and his cause.

Kroft: There is an element of the press, most of the mainstream press, nobody wants to see you prosecuted, because it could affect the way that they do their business. But there’s also a feeling within the community that you’re not one of them, that you play a different game.

Assange: We do play a different game. And I hope we’re a new way.

Kroft: The point that they’re making I think is that you’re not — you’re — you’re a publisher, but you’re also an activist.

Assange: Wait, whoa. We’re a particular type of activist. In the U.S. context, there seems to be communist activists or something, so it’s a…

Kroft: Right. Agitator.

Assange: It’s a dirty word in the U.S.

Kroft: It’s a dirty word. And people think that what you’re trying to do is to sabotage the workings of government.

Assange: No. We’re not that type of activists. We are free press activists. It’s not about saving the whales. It’s about giving people the information they need to support whaling or not support whaling. Why? That is the raw ingredients that is needed to make a just and civil society. And without that you’re just sailing in the dark.

The influence of 60 Minutes on American public opinion has historically been hard to overstate. The program has been on the air since 1968, and while they have made their share of bloomers over the years (the fiasco regarding George W. Bush’s National Guard service, the Biovail affair, accidentally trashing Audi sales in the US, and so on), they go around interviewing controversial figures all the time, and are far from inexperienced at the art of spin. Particularly the olds, I suspect, mostly take their word as gospel. (The show still registers in the double-digit millions of ratings, although those same ratings also show the age of the audience.)

I’d expected 60 Minutes to really go after Assange because the administration wants to prosecute him so badly, but what happened instead is that he was given a massive soapbox from which to promote the core principles of WikiLeaks, one that may well bring public opinion to his side.

In the past Assange has been criticized for grandstanding, for arrogance and recklessness, but none of these qualities were in evidence last night. Perhaps he has been taken down a few pegs by the extraordinary effects of his efforts; it is not too much of a stretch to say that WikiLeaks played at least some part in unleashing the tidal wave of unrest that is at present engulfing the Middle East; you could make this case based on their Tunisian disclosures alone. Or perhaps the editors at 60 Minutes are more sympathetic than we know, or are likely to learn. In any case, Assange’s performance was spectacular. Restrained, intelligent, on point every step of the way.

Kroft: There are people that believe that it has everything to do with the next threat. That if they don’t come after you now that what they have done is essentially endorsed small, powerful organization with access to very powerful information releasing it outside their control. And if they let you get away it, then they are encouraging…

Assange: Then what? They will have to have freedom of the press?

Kroft: That it’s encouragement to you…

Assange: And? And?

Kroft: …or to some other organization?

Assange: And to every other publisher. Absolutely correct. It will be encouragement to every other publisher to publish fearlessly. That’s what it will encourage.

Also encouraging was Assange’s spirited defense of Bradley Manning:

Kroft: You’ve called him as a prisoner of a conscience, correct?

Assange: I’ve said that if the allegations against him are true then he is the foremost prisoner of conscience in the United States. There’s no allegation it was done for money. There’s no allegation it’s done for any other reasons than a political reason. Now, I’m sorry if people in the United States don’t want to believe that they are keeping a political prisoner. But in Bradley Manning’s case, the allegations are that he engaged in an illegal activity for political motivations.

Kroft: People in the United States think he’s a traitor.

Assange: That’s clearly not true.

It is too bad that the interview cuts away after this — an elaboration regarding the fact that Manning appears to have acted out of patriotism, rather than the reverse, would have been helpful — but I suspect that even what we saw will have a positive effect on Manning’s fortunes.

For anyone who doubts that the program was a resounding victory for press freedom in general and for WikiLeaks and Assange in particular, there’s just a bit of anecdotal evidence on the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll attached to the program (which you can watch on line; there’s also a transcript available.) I took the poll this morning, and the results appear on the right; presumably the results on the left came from polling conducted before last night’s broadcast.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.