Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Economist betrays its core principles

Not long ago, The Economist was an interesting magazine. These days, its opinions are indistinguishable from Wall Street Journal op-eds, it's capacity for reasoned argument similarly stunted.  It's as if the Economist is lost.  As a reader today, I get the uneasy feeling the journal is pandering to the perceived prejudices of its growing American subscription base.   I think they're making a mistake, because if I wanted to read an issue of Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or Commentary, I'd have bought one.

WikiLeaks, a fellow publisher, is under attack from big government.   What is the response of The Economist?
BIG crimes deserve tough responses. In any country the theft and publication of 250,000 secret government documents would deserve punishment. If the leak costs lives, let alone the careers and trust that have already perished amid the WikiLeaks disclosures, the case for action is even stronger.
At this point, under 2,000 cables have been published. And every single cable WikiLeaks has published to date has been published in conjunction with a widely respected newspaper.   Furthermore, only a small fraction of the cables WikiLeaks claims to possess are classified as "secret" (hundreds of thousands of Americans have access to secret-level classification).  Punishment?   It's not even clear that laws were broken.   If the publication of the diplomatic cables warrants punishment, writers and editors at the New York Times and other many other newspapers face prison sentences.  What will this mean for freedom of the press?      The Economist claims to want a "tough response" but is conspicuously silent on all the "tough" questions.   

"If the leaks cost lives... the case for action is even stronger."  One thing that distinguishes Anglo-American law from say, a state of lawlessness, is that law considers "intent."   Did WikiLeaks and its newspaper co-publishers intend to cause harm?
... Removing illicit material from the internet is hard. But governments spend a lot of money, rightly, on chasing child pornography, bomb-making techniques and copyright breaches to the internet’s margins....  
It looks to me as if the Economist is in a race to the bottom with CNN regarding its choice of metaphors.  Recall that CNN compared WikiLeaks to cop killers,  a serial bank-robber, and a fugitive "Pot King."

Does the Economist have the courage to defend economic liberalism, the free market?
Businesses will go their own way. Some, such as PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, which handled donations to WikiLeaks, and Amazon, which provided web-hosting services, have dumped it as a customer in response to American outrage. More may follow. They risk attacks from its fans, just as those that refuse face hostility from their customers in America. Too bad: business is full of hard choices.
Except that's not how it happened.    The fact of the matter is that government officials pressured private companies not to do business with WikiLeaks, obstructing commerce. For example, see "Amazon drops WikiLeaks under political pressure" (AFP) or "Cables visualization pulled after pressure from Joe Lieberman" (Guardian).  The government conspired to interfere with the marketplace in a way that ought to be abhorrent to any publication that sees itself as an advocate for economic liberalism.    There was a time when The Economist had strong convictions.    The Economist once maintained that consumers, not government officials, should decide what private organizations or publishers they wished to support.   Sadly, the magazine has become just another mouthpiece for big government.
 For the American government, prosecution, not persecution, offers the best chance of limiting the damage...  The blustering calls for the assassination of Julian Assange .... look both weak and repellent.   If Assange has broken American law, it is there that he should stand trial....  
First of all, it's not clear that Julian Assange has broken any American law that has been held constitutional.   Secondly, a foreigner is not subject to another country's laws unless a foreigner commits a crime on another country's territory.   It's difficult to imagine the circumstances under which a foreigner who has been residing in foreign countries should be subject to American law.   Would China ever presume to put Americans on trial for breaking Chinese laws while they are living in the United States?   Is the Economist prepared to say that China should have that right?   Should the editors of the Economist, a London-based publisher, face prosecution if its editors have broken the laws, say, of Thailand?
If America sticks to those standards now it will display a strength and sanity that contrasts with the shrill absolutism and cyber-vandalism of the WikiLeaks partisans.
Sorry, there's no contest.  Calls for assassination are as shrill and absolutist as it gets.     At a time when people are calling for the assassination of a publisher, there is nothing "absolutist" about steadfastly defending him.   Cyber-vandalism?   The attacks that have blocked the WikiLeaks website represented the first, most damaging, and most massive act of cyber-vandalism since the first cable was released.  Why is the US government not investigating this cyber-vandalism?    

WikiLeaks has published the cables in collaboration with the Guardian, New York Times, and other respected newspapers.    Unlike those publishers and many others organizations around the world from Reporters Without Borders to Human Rights Watch, the Economist lacks the strength, moral clarity, and sanity to defend freedom of the speech and a free press. 


1 comment:

  1. I dropped my subscription to the Economists long ago, when they pushed for the attack on Iraq. It was no longer the magazine I was used to. It had become just another American propaganda organ.


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