FOR PEOPLE WHOSE primary political values are human rights, the public welfare, and elemental justice, the cases of Julian Assange and Steven Donziger are no-brainers: They are the most blatant current examples of why the words “American justice system” have come to represent their Orwellian opposite. Assange and Donziger have been mercilessly victimized by the very society whose vaunted principles they have at great personal sacrifice labored to uphold. Unfortunately, however, progressive political opinion in the United States has in large part failed to recognize the outrageous miscarriages of justice their respective cases represent.
One consequence of Donald Trump’s four years in office has been an intense polarization of the traditional two-party system into an extreme rightwing, overtly racist Republican Party, with the Democratic Party as its only viable electoral alternative. As a result, many progressive-minded Americans have tended to take their political cues from the Biden administration and liberal media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and MSNBC, which tend to reflect the outlook and ideology of the Democratic Party establishment. Call it “the DNC [Democratic National Committee] media.”
Fear of the return of Trump is certainly not entirely irrational, but it does not justify the DNC media’s purposeful indifference to the dangers the Assange and Donziger cases represent. It is not only a failure on their part; it is potentially suicidal for them, because it feeds into the MAGA crowd’s narrative of the mainstream media as “enemy of the people.”(1)
If the Trumpists succeed in manipulating the electorate into returning their hero or a successor sociopathic demagogue to office, a great deal of the blame will fall to the Biden administration for not only failing to address the existential crises of our era, but for exacerbating them. In his first year and a half as Chief Executive, Biden’s sycophancy toward the Pentagon has accelerated the militarization of American society(2) and has returned us to the brink of thermonuclear holocaust.(3) At the same time, his unshakeable fealty to the fossil fuels industry has drawn us ever nearer to the climate catastrophe point of no return.(4)
While those are the most important examples of the continuity of Biden’s policies with Trump’s, his failure to remedy the appalling judicial injustices done to Julian Assange and Steven Donziger—which he could easily do—is no less disgraceful. To understand how these extremely consequential cases have receded into a blind spot in the national discourse, it is necessary to review their treatment by the establishment news publishers.
Julian Assange as Portrayed by the DNC Media
The Washington Post’s coverage of the Assange case has been especially harsh. Its position can best be judged by official statements of its editorial board. I have been able to find only one, which was published on April 11, 2019. Here is its headline: Julian Assange is not a free-press hero. And he is long overdue for personal accountability. This was its lede:
“He may ultimately face courts in the United States or Sweden, as well. If these democracies handle it properly, Mr. Assange’s case could conclude as a victory for the rule of law, not the defeat for civil liberties of which his defenders mistakenly warn.”
WaPo has also occasionally published opinion columns mentioning the threat to freedom of the press posed by the prosecution of Assange, but they are exceedingly rare. A Google search revealed only two, and here is the lede of one of them:
“Julian Assange, I think we can all agree, is a dirtbag. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing that he’s been arrested and will apparently be extradited to the United States.”(5)
Calling someone a dirtbag is hardly the way to win public support for a victim of judicial injustice, even if it’s coupled with a mild caveat about broader consequences of the case. And it should be noted that WaPo’s concern about those broader consequences seems to have manifested itself only when Trump was in office. With Biden at the helm, its coverage of the Assange case has been limited to brief news articles that prioritize unflattering assessments of Assange’s character.
Liberal media outlets such as the New York Times,
the Washington Post, and MSNBC tend to reflect the outlook
and ideology of the Democratic Party establishment.
Call it “the DNC media.”
The New York Times’ treatment of the Assange case has generally been less toxic than WaPo’s, but it has been far from adequate, especially in light of the fact that the threat to freedom of the press Assange’s prosecution represents has been widely designated “The New York Times problem.” That phrase first made its appearance when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice realized that the same charges it initially brought against Assange could also be brought against the New York Times and many other mainstream publishers. Obama quickly dropped the charges against Assange. Trump’s DoJ reinstated them and Biden’s continues to push them.
On May 23, 2019, the Times’ editorial board published a statement headlined Julian Assange’s Indictment Aims at the Heart of the First Amendment. It warned:
“The Trump administration seeks to use the Espionage Act to redefine what journalists can and cannot publish. . . . the effort to prosecute Mr. Assange . . . could have a chilling effect on American journalism as it has been practiced for generations. It is aimed straight at the heart of the First Amendment.”
This was an effort to issue a warning about “the New York Times problem,” but it undercut its own effectiveness by ending on a note echoing the WaPo editorial board:
“Mr. Assange is no hero. But this case now represents a threat to freedom of expression and, with it, the resilience of American democracy itself.”
Although the Times published several op-ed pieces that warned of the dangers posed by the Assange prosecution, it also published a vicious attack against Assange by Michelle Goldberg, one of their regular columnists and a frequent commentator on MSNBC. Goldberg didn’t call Assange a “dirtbag,” but her animosity toward him was nonetheless undisguised. She labelled him “an odious person,” and falsely accused him of “misogyny,” “antisemitism,” “a conduit for Russian intelligence services,” and “helping Trump become president.”(6) All of this echoes the standard talking points of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, who have sought to scapegoat Assange for their electoral failure.
Again, while other Times opinion columnists have accurately warned that attempts to criminalize the publishing of government secrets is a mortal threat to the existence of a free press, Michelle Goldberg’s screed effectively undercut the possibility of rallying American progressive opinion behind the demand that the Biden Department of Justice drop the charges against Assange.
The Donziger Case as Covered by the DNC Media
Whereas most Americans have at least heard of Julian Assange, the same cannot be said of Steven Donziger. That in itself is an indictment of the DNC media, because the bizarre persecution of Steven Donziger by the American legal system is as newsworthy as any story could possibly be. It is a David-and-Goliath narrative pitting a young, idealistic lawyer with minimal resources against a corporate behemoth with virtually unlimited resources at its disposal.
More than a decade ago, Donziger sued Chevron on behalf of indigenous people in Ecuador who claimed that 16 billion gallons of toxic petroleum waste Chevron had dumped in the Amazon rainforest had poisoned them and their children. In 2011, Donziger’s clients won a judgment against Chevron in the Ecuadoran courts of unprecedented magnitude—$9.5 billion! Chevron simply withdrew from Ecuador and to this day hasn’t paid a penny to the tens of thousands of people it poisoned. But it has spent millions retaliating against Donziger in U.S. federal courts, which have gone all in on the side of the mighty corporation. As a result, Donziger spent almost three years in federal detention—993 days, to be exact.
At first, the corporate press simply reported court rulings that appeared to confirm Chevron’s accusations of fraud and corruption against Donziger. A 2016 article in the Washington Post, for example, proclaimed:
“It’s official: A group of indigenous people of Ecuador and their quixotic New York City lawyer Steven Donziger will not be able to turn to U.S. courts to enforce an $8.6 billion judgment against Chevron that was won in an Ecuadoran court.
“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit unanimously affirmed a lower court ruling on Monday that the judgment the Ecuadorans and Donziger obtained in Ecuador was based on fraudulent assertions and actions by Donziger and his associates and therefore could not be enforced in the United States. The court said the “record in the present case reveals a parade of corrupt actions” by the indigenous Ecuadorans’ legal team, “including coercion, fraud and bribery.””(7)
The struggle to hold Chevron accountable for its crimes
against humanity and the environment is far from over.
As Donziger and his legal team continued to challenge the intense judicial bias, however, the establishment press shifted to not covering the case at all. In July 2021, media watchdog organization FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) stated that the New York Times “has ignored this high-profile case for at least seven years.”(8)
One investigative reporter described the Donziger case as “one of the most bitter and drawn-out cases in the history of environmental law.”(9) If that, the blatant injustice, and the multibillion-dollar penalty were not sufficiently newsworthy to attract the attention of the news media, the case also featured a shockingly flagrant interference of private interests in the American judicial system. Federal district court judge Lewis Kaplan charged Donziger with contempt of court, but the U.S. Attorney for Kaplan’s district refused to prosecute the case. So the court appointed a private corporate law firm to prosecute Donziger—a law firm that had previously represented Chevron!
Although the fraud and racketeering charges Chevron accused Donziger of are felonies, the contempt of court charge he was actually arrested and held on was a mere misdemeanor. As Donziger himself observed:
“No matter what you think of me or Judge Kaplan, isn’t it newsworthy that an American lawyer is under house arrest for two years on a misdemeanor? It’s just a newsworthy story!”(10)
Donziger also pointed out some glaring conflicts of interest that help to explain the Times’ silence about his case. One is that billionaire Robert Denham sits on the boards of directors of both Chevron and the New York Times. Another is the ironic fact that one of the lead lawyers representing Chevron in Chevron v. Donziger, Ted Boutrous, also serves as a First Amendment lawyer for the New York Times.(11)
While the DNC media was studiously averting its gaze from the Donziger case, the latter’s importance as a global environmental justice issue became obvious to environmental activists, and accordingly gained the attention of celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, Alec Baldwin, and Sting. Despite their best efforts, however, this cause célèbre has not attracted the broad support of progressive political opinion it would take to prod Biden to definitively end the legal persecution of Steven Donziger and hold Chevron accountable for its environmental crimes.
Latest Developments in the Assange Case
When Biden took office in January 2020, many progressive-minded Americans assumed, not unreasonably, that his administration would be much better than Trump’s at defending freedom of the press. First Amendment supporters expected Biden to follow Obama’s example and dismiss the charges against Assange, but that did not happen. In October 2021, a coalition of 25 press freedom, civil liberties, and human rights groups sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Department of Justice to drop its efforts to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange.
The charges against Assange, they declared, “pose a grave threat to press freedom both in the U.S. and abroad.” The letter was signed by, among others, the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Fight for the Future, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch, PEN America, and Reporters Without Borders. Alas, the Biden administration has still shown no inclination to heed their appeal.
All supporters of human rights should demand that Priti Patel refuse
the extradition request, that Merrick Garland immediately drop all charges
against Assange, and that Assange be released from prison immediately.
As of this writing, Julian Assange remains incarcerated in Belmarsh Prison in London, in conditions described by Nils Melzer as “psychological torture, a form of torture aimed at destroying the personality of an individual.”(12) Melzer is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. He has recently published a book on the case entitled The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution.(13)
The Biden Administration has not only declined to drop the charges against Assange; it persists in demanding that the British government extradite him to face espionage charges carrying a 175-year sentence in a maximum-security American prison. British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s ruling on the U.S. Department of Justice’s extradition request is said to be “imminent.”(14) The Council of Europe—the continent’s leading human rights organization comprising forty-six member states—has called on the British government to refuse to extradite Assange.(15)
All supporters of human rights should demand that Priti Patel refuse the extradition request, that Merrick Garland immediately drop all charges against Assange, and that Assange be released from prison immediately.
Latest Developments in the Donziger Case
On April 25, 2022, Steven Donziger was finally released from detention. Amnesty International summarized the reaction of human rights defenders:
“We are relieved that Steven Donziger will finally recover his freedom after almost 1,000 days of arbitrary detention, which included 45 days in prison and over 900 days under house arrest. He should have never been detained for even one day, as it has been clear the whole process against him has been in retaliation for his human rights work that exposed corporate wrongdoings.
“Unfortunately, the end of this sentence does not mean the end of the injustices Steven has faced. The US government must fully implement the decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including launching an impartial and independent investigation into the circumstances that led to Steven’s arbitrary detention, to prevent something like this from happening again, and to swiftly enact anti-SLAPP laws to protect those brave enough to call out corporate crimes. Corporations must not be allowed to continue abusing the US justice system to silence and intimidate human rights defenders or anyone else exposing their wrongdoing.”(16)
The struggle to hold Chevron accountable for its crimes against humanity and the environment is far from over. As one commentator observed six years ago:
“Chevron—worth $189 billion with more than $9 billion of cash and marketable securities—isn’t about to run out of money. And so the fight will go on.”(17)
What Accounts for the DNC Media’s Stance in These Cases?
The source of the DNC media’s hostility toward Assange and reticence with regard to Donziger is similar but not identical. The hatred of Assange was not primarily due to the allegation that he was to blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat; the essential motive came from the military, the “intelligence community,” and the diplomatic corps. The Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, and the State Department were all shocked and appalled by Wikileaks’ effectiveness in exposing widespread U.S. war crimes, and they ardently want to crush Assange as a fearsome example to all potential successors. Despite the apparent Republican versus Democrat polarization, supporting the aims of the U.S. military and its imperial objectives is entirely bipartisan.
It is a different bipartisan motive that has led the establishment press to turn a blind eye to the legal assault against Steven Donziger. For all their progressive window-dressing, when push comes to shove, the New York Times, WaPo, and MSNBC are no less devoted than Fox News to serving the interests of corporate America and its billionaire investor class. To channel Walter Cronkite: “And that’s the way it is.”
- Trump tweet, April 5, 2019: “The press is . . . truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
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- Compare Trump’s last military budget proposal ($740 billion) with Biden’s current one ($813 billion).
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- Tensions over the faceoff between Russia and the U.S. over Ukraine have amplified the danger of a thermonuclear exchange that could annihilate the human race.
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- Biden has approved new drilling permits on public lands at a pace faster than Trump’s, and has opened a record number of acres of the Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling. See: Emma Newburger, “Biden Administration Proposes Oil and Gas Drilling Reform but Stops Short of Ban,” CNBC, November 26, 2021.
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- Paul Waldman, “Don’t Celebrate the Indictment of Julian Assange,” Washington Post, April 11, 2019.
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- Michelle Goldberg, “Is Assange’s Arrest a Threat to the Free Press?,” New York Times, April 11, 2019.
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- Steven Mufson, “Chevron Claims Another Round in Endless Jungle Fight,” Washington Post, August 12, 2016.
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- James Baratta, fair.org, July 2, 2021.
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- Sharon Lerner, “How the Environmental Lawyer Who Won a Massive Judgment Against Chevron Lost Everything,” The Intercept, January 29, 2020.
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- Steven Donziger, interview with BreakThrough News, June 5, 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5km4S7Jcjo
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- “Steven Donziger Says Chevron Lawyer Working for NY Times Is ‘Conflict of Interest,’” The Hill, June 8, 2021.
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- Nils Melzer, “State responsibility for the torture of Julian Assange,” a speech by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, at the German Bundestag, Berlin, November 27, 2019.
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- Nils Melzer, The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution (Verso Books, 2022).
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- Duncan Campbell, “Priti Patel, Hear This Loud and Clear: Julian Assange Must Not Be Handed Over to the US,” Guardian, May 10, 2022.
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- Council of Europe Portal, “Commissioner Calls on UK Government Not To Extradite Julian Assange,” May 18, 2022.
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- Amnesty International, “After Almost 1,000 Days of Arbitrary Detention, Steven Donziger’s Release Highlights Urgent Need for Action Against SLAPPs,” amnesty.org, April 25, 2022. SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
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- Mufson, “Chevron Claims Another Round in Endless Jungle Fight.”
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This article will appear in the July-August 2022 ATC, ATC 219