Two of journalism’s most radical figures are now silenced, or shunned. Nick Denton, the Brit whose Gawker website has whipped away the lace curtains that covered (mainly) sexual privacy since 2002, has been bankrupted by vengeful and wealthy men.
Julian Assange, the Australian whose Wikileaks organization has revealed (mainly) U.S. secrets, has been left alone and friendless — dropped even by one-time allies after dumping troves of unredacted information taken from the files of U.S. and Turkish political parties.
Both men tried to create new standards for investigative journalism; both have failed so far. They’ve failed in their efforts to emulate the paper that sees itself, with some justification, as fashioning the model for that brand of reporting -- the New York Times. The Times has, for more than a century, stated its guiding principle on the top left-hand corner of its front page. “All the News That's Fit to Print” was chosen as the paper’s slogan by Arthur Ochs in 1896, the year he bought the publication. It was meant to differentiate the Times from the popular “yellow press” that, like Gawker, specialized in gossip, if way less racy. Ochs wanted to attract, by a display of ethical propriety, the burgeoning, respectable bourgeoisie of the city.
The New York Times has long taken the lead in publishing the secrets of U.S. (and other) administrations—but shorn of personal details. If it tore aside a veil concealing a sex scandal, it did so with reluctance and justified its decision to publish to itself and to its readers on the grounds of public interest. Joseph Lelyveld, editor during the hottest period of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, was genuinely conflicted about whether or not the story was fit to print. Because it was at the centre of a move to impeach the president, it was.
The New York Times’ stature has made it a template for the respectable press. The British and other tabloids have always thumbed their noses at such propriety So does the new generation of leakers, who think “fit to print” is mainly cowardice in the face of government disapproval.
Assange was never a mainstream journalist, and has always scorned the tribe. Denton was a journalist. We worked together in December 1989, in Bucharest, after the fall and subsequent murder of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. Denton allowed me to join him at an interview he had arranged with Silviu Brucan, a figure high in the Communist Party who had turned against Ceaucescu, and which landed me a huge scoop. Denton lacked the feral quality that reporters tend to develop: His was an act of surprising generosity. In the way of human nature, I have ever since been well disposed to him.
As the former Gawker staffer Jia Tolentino wrote recently, Denton's managing style was to create no hierarchy, to encourage his staff to dig without inhibition and to follow their own path. When “fit to read” news people came to see him, he was politely dismissive of them, telling James Fallows of The Atlantic that he was catering to those “who don't want to eat the boring vegetables.”
But Denton’s self-starting staff crossed two rich and angry men. One was the wrestler Hulk Hogan, incensed when Gawker published part of a video showing him having sex with a friend’s wife. Hogan took Gawker Media to court and won a total of $140 million in March. Hogan’s suit was bankrolled by Peter Thiel, a billionaire whom Gawker had outed as gay in 2007. At last month's GOP convention, Thiel told the audience that, “I'm proud to be gay. I'm proud to be a Republican.” Gawker, for its part, went proudly bankrupt.
Assange is still working, though he refuses to leave his stifling sanctuary in Ecuador's tiny London embassy. He outraged fellow leaker Edward Snowden when Wikileaks dumped files purloined from the Democratic National Committee and the Turkish ruling AKP party. Snowden thinks Assange’s release of uncurated personal information — the Turkish files include a database of female voters -- broke the unwritten code of the new journalism.
Assange, though not a reporter himself, uses journalists to get his information out. He sees the institutions of government as webs of hypocrisy and mendacity. He believes political and corporate leaders undermine citizens’ rights with their hidden, self- interested maneuvering for ever more power and ever larger profits.
For those like Assange, the only hope lies in the online space that can be protected from invasion by the strongest encryption. From there, guerrilla warfare can mine the secrets that states require to function, and whose leaking will progressively break down their claims to their populations’ allegiance.
Different as they are, both Assange and Denton see themselves as anti-hypocrite. Denton knows that most people like gossip more than long investigations that win Pulitzers. Why pretend? Why cover up your emotional and sexual preferences and activities? Didn’t we get through all that in the sixties and seventies?
Denton has been stopped in his tracks. But he's only 50, and he's too restlessly ambitious to give up pushing the media world in new directions. Assange, 45, can leave his sanctuary at any time, so long as he is prepared to face charges of sexual harassment, which have been pending in Sweden for years. (The charges may be heard inside the Ecuadorian embassy, and if dismissed, he would be free to go.)
But he’s farther out in the cold than Denton. If Assange does not row back from his fundamentalist position, he will be a rogue leaker, shorn of allies, the Lenin of the 21st century’s media. Denton, for his part, may be the 21st century’s Oscar Wilde: hounded, brought down—but eventually canonized for being ahead of his time.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics." He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.