This is a story of two men, both of whom have been acclaimed as heroes, both of whom have fallen from once lofty perches. It is also a story about journalism and why it matters.
Back in the days of George W. Bush, the lies about WMD, the doublespeak of neo-conservatism and the tragedy of the Iraq War, the world looked for heroic whistle-blowers to step forward and lay bare the hypocrisy and criminality of the United States' government. The media seemed unable to provide this: in the UK, they were gun-shy after the David Kelly affair, elsewhere they were reduced to feeding us reassuring briefings, seemingly incapable of speaking truth to power (with some exceptions). We, the many, the awake, could see we were being lied to. We just needed someone to give us the proof.
That hero stepped forward, in the shape of Julian Assange, whose Wikileaks website released a video of a US Airforce helicopter over Baghdad, killing unarmed civilians and journalists on the ground. The whole incident was profoundly distressing, as we could hear the group-think developing between pilots and crew, that cameras were guns and journalists were enemies. Their malpractice led to the deaths of innocent people.
I and many others saw this video as proof of the sick mindset of the US forces occupying Iraq; a mindset shared and encouraged by their commanders and, ultimately, their president. Julian Assange had provided the platform for us to view this attrocity, and his citizen journalism seemed a beacon to all of us who were disturbed by the US's turn to the dark side; invading and occupying a sovereign country, raping its resources and killing its people, all with impunity, with no justice for the weak.
Julian Assange's name appeared at the top of the credits of this video - a video showing the murder of innocents - as "Producer, Creative Director"... in retrospect, perhaps this should have served as some kind of a warning.
But it came as no surprise to us that soon charges were levelled, not at the pilots or the soldiers who carried out this war crime, but at Julian Assange. These charges were of rape, but not as we knew it. Just understanding these charges required understanding new terms for many: I and others learned to say "withdrawn consent" and "explicit consent" because of these accusations. The charges seemed overly convenient for those in power: it was easy to believe they were trumped-up charges to try to silence the truth teller.
While Assange went into hiding at the Ecuadorian Embassy and his Wikileaks project entered a long period of virtual hibernation, broken only by sporadic activity, the political winds changed. Barack Obama had become President of the United States, the Iraq War ended, the Afghanistan War ended, the US Government finally had a face that could be trusted by the world, the project of neo-conservatism was dead.
Which was good news for everybody... except American conservatives, who bayed for proof that this Obama was corrupt, that his election was a fraud, that he was a Muslim, a Kenyan, that he was a terrorist, or at least a terrorist sympathiser. The American Right picked up the mantle of grievance the world had held against them when they were in power. Now powerless, they aped their critics, and hurled those accusations of criminality and brutality at the new administration.
They were acting out of profound resentment.
But one hero stood up for them - a young, brash citizen reporter called James O'Keefe, who targeted an organisation called ACORN, which served as an advice centre and community hub across the United States, offering support services to disadvantaged people, registering voters and advocating for the poor. ACORN was everything that Barack Obama stood for: community organisation, egalitarianism, a hand-up for the lowly, a voice for the voiceless. The Right hated it and saw it as a corrupt organisation that had stolen the election for Obama.
James O'Keefe made a video confirming the right-wing's view that ACORN was a morally bankrupt vessel built to corrupt the whole United States with its socialist cancer. The video showed an ACORN employee seemingly giving advice on how to traffic underaged sex workers into the country, and how to hide the income their prostitution ring would generate.
ACORN perished in the light of this video, it's funding was immediately cut by the new administration, who were eager to be seen as whiter than white. It was later proven that the video was misleading and the ACORN operatives in it had acted properly - what was actually happening in the video was the employee was getting as much information from these criminals as she could, so the police could arrest them.
O'Keefe was eventually ordered to pay $100,000 to the employee he had smeared through his reporting. He had, however, become a hero of the right and they loved him. His original, misleading video ranked high on the Fox News rundown; its debunking was barely mentioned.
O'Keefe had a sponsor in Andrew Breitbart, who founded Breitbart dot com, and launched it's rebirth off the back of this seemingly damning video, with millions and millions of views from the American right-wing, who were ravenously hungry for stories that proved Obama was in league with Satan. Incidentally, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's Cheif Strategist, now runs Breitbart.
James O'Keefe has since repeated his trick at Planned Parenthood and at National Public Radio, among others, editing videos to incriminate innocent people and smear those organisations. His version of events never lasts beyond the publication of the unedited footage. It is no exageration to say that he is a known con-artist, whose every publication should be treated, not just with caution, but with utter contempt.
O'Keefe and Assange seemed to exist in different worlds, except that they both have tried their hand at guerrilla journalism and neither have regard for traditional journalism. For example, Assange has published reams of e-mails and diplomatic cables that he has not even read, simply to 'expose' the powerful. However, when it comes to suspect information pertaining to payments made through a Russian bank, Wikileaks have chosen not to 'leak' it.
As noted, Julian Assange once claimed credit as the 'Creative Director' of a real life tragedy. What those who still believe in Wikileaks say is that it provides us with the raw intelligence of journalism, without bias. But that simply isn't the case any more, if it ever was.
James O'Keefe and Julian Assange both selectively release information to paint a version of events that suits their ends. Now, for the first time, we can see that O'Keefe and Assange are on the same side.
Yesterday, (28/06/17), Wikileaks - which eight years ago brought us the real story and video of the deaths of journalists - published one of James O'Keefe's blatant smear-job videos, this time targeting news organistion and Trump administration bogeyman, CNN. In it, you can see the hack editing of a secret recording of CNN host Van Jones, seemingly calling the Russia collusion investigation "a nothingburger", before quickly cutting away. It is obvious that the unedited version of this video will tell a different story. It is obvious that it has been selectively edited to smear the people who appear in it.
That is plain for anyone to see.
But what is interesting is that Wikileaks would, without pause, present this report - from such a dubious source as James O' Keefe! - as fact. Perhaps Julian Assange is so twisted by his years of confinement that he does not care, or he is so in the thrawl of Trump or Putin that he simply augments every argument thrown against the rising tide of suspicion of collusion between Trump (& asoc.) and Russia. Wikileaks, afterall, is one obvious conduit through which such collusion would have been conducted. Remember Trump saying "I love Wikileaks!"? There is evidence that there was much more to this relationship.
It is significant, not to mention ironic, that the O'Keefe/Assange axis has formed targeting the real journalists of CNN. People who are accountable for their work, who have to answer to demanding editors, who have to stick to certain practices, who cannot simply shock their way to success, or destroy reputations with falsehoods.
The free press itself is one true bulwark against a tyrant. In the light of real investigative journalism, corruption is exposed, lies are laid bare, actions are put in context and the powerful are challenged with the facts.
The free press is the first casualty of tyranny, and it has been under sustained assault from the Trump administration at every turn.
If there were an effort by a foreign power to co-opt the government of the United States, they would need, as an insurance policy, to undermine public trust in the journalists whose job it is to root out the truth. At the point when or if a news agency pulls on the golden thread between Trump's collar and Putin's hand, the only question left for the American people will be: who do you believe?