Column: A Word, Please: Julian Assange should not be considered a journalist working for the public

Journalism is one of those professions that gets under your skin.

Twenty years after I left community news, my work as a small-fry city hall reporter and city editor continues to inform my reading and my world view.

For example, my friends know that if they’re going to bash “the media” to me, I’ll demand they show why the journalists they’re mad at failed to do their jobs properly and didn’t just fail to do them in a way my friend would have preferred.

My experience informs my approach to grammar and language, too.

This column would be very different if, instead of a background in journalism, I had a master’s degree in English literature.

In that case, I’d likely focus on the beauty and artistry of the written word. Instead, I focus on language as a tool and on its utilitarian power to convey information — journalism.

So it’s from this you-can-take-the-girl-out-of-the-newsroom-but-you-can’t-take-the-newsroom-out-of-the-girl perspective that I’ve followed the news of Julian Assange’s arrest and the ensuing debate over journalistic freedoms.

The discussion should be moot. Assange was charged with hacking crimes, not publishing.

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Still, pundits have used his arrest as an excuse to furrow their brows and express grave concerns about what it all means for press freedoms.

For them, and for anyone who shares my passionate support of a free press, I have good news: Assange is not a journalist. And I can prove it if you’ll follow me through two scenarios, one made-up, one real.

Scenario one: A fictional worker at a fictional tobacco company sits at his computer typing up a press release about a research study.

A lone scientist (never mind who pays him) produced data that starkly contradicts previous research showing that smoking can cause emphysema.

The worker types up the news, blasts it out to an email list, posts it on the company’s website, then starts penning an article he’ll submit to major media outlets in the hopes they’ll publish the news.

In his years on the job, this worker has come across a lot of studies about how smoking affects health. Most of them he ignores. They’re not exactly instrumental to selling cigarettes.

But this one he’s determined to share with the world.

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Scenario two: In 2010, a brash, high-minded Julian Assange is trotting around the globe bragging about a cache of juicy U.S. State Department cables in his possession.

In an interview with a Russian news outlet, he mentions he also has dirt on the Kremlin.

“We have [compromising materials] about your government and businessmen,” Assange tells news outlet Izvestia.

Another WikiLeaks representative, Kristinn Hrafnsson, tells a reporter, “Russian readers will learn a lot about their country.”

An odd series of events begins to unfold.

Assange is arrested for sexual assault. His attorney, according to a 2014 New Republic article, says Assange is the victim of a “honey trap” laid by “dark forces.”

An unlikely champion takes up Assange’s cause: Vladimir Putin publicly condemns his arrest.

The promised dirt on Russia never sees the light of day. The U.S. State Department cables don’t get published, either.

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Instead, they get weaponized against Putin adversaries in Belarus. Assange lands in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and Ecuador’s president will eventually get his own show on the Russian state TV network RT.

It won’t be the last time Assange declines to publish information that would embarrass the Kremlin.

In the summer of 2016, Foreign Policy reports, Assange will turn down a chance to leak a new batch of Kremlin dirt, instead keeping his attentions focused on information harmful to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

The strategic nature — and timing — of Assange’s “publishing” activity is well known. Wikileaks’ dump of stolen DNC emails just hours after news broke about an “Access Hollywood” tape harmful to Putin’s preferred candidate comes immediately to mind.

Real journalism serves just one master — the public. Conversely, public relations professionals have a different job: to promote a product, service, idea or agenda.

To anyone who understands what public relations is and who knows what Assange has done, it’s clear he’s no journalist. He’s a P.R. flack.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at

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