When Josh Singer sold his first feature-film script to Dreamworks in 2010, he had no idea what he was signing up for. The deal meant the company could name his next assignment, and six months later he was back taking notes from his old professors at Harvard Law School, and flying to Berlin and London to speak with the insiders involved in history’s biggest-ever leak of government information to the media.
Singer had been hired to adapt two books—Inside Wikileaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, by David Leigh and Luke Harding. He would spend months researching what would become his screenplay for The Fifth Estate, which opened Friday.
Singer is a former writer and story editor for The West Wing, and business analyst for McKinsey & Company. He spoke with us on the sidelines of the Online News Association Conference in Atlanta last week.
TakePart: Last night we were talking about your research process before you started writing the script, and I was thinking it sounded a lot like what I do when I’m preparing to write a long piece of nonfiction for a magazine. Tell us about that.
Josh Singer: I took a class called “The Internet and Society,” taught by Jonathan Zittrain, when I was at Harvard Law School about 12 years ago. People were really thinking about how the Internet was going to affect society and what laws should or should not regulate the Internet, and how the architecture, and things coders were doing, was going to have an impact on civil liberties and power—as we’ve now seen. Lawrence Lessig had just written Code, and was warning that corporations were going to get their hands in the government and start grabbing your personal information. Everyone said he was crazy, and of course he wasn’t.
So fast forward ten years, when Dreamworks came to me with these two books. The first thing I did was call Lessig and Zittrain, and they put me in touch with Micah Sifry at Personal Democracy Forum and Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Center for Civic Media. They all just helped me, and also told me what to read to try to wrap my head everything.
At the same time, it was very important to me to get my head around the story. The books we got, one of them was very controversial. It’s a book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was Julian Assange’s lieutenant for about two and a half years, and then the other was by two Guardian guys, David Leigh and Luke Harding. I flew to Germany and spent four days with Daniel, and I flew to London and spent three days with the Guardian guys, and also talked to Alan Russbridger and several others there, and spent hours Skyping with Birgita Jónsdóttir, just trying to get a sense of, Is Daniel’s account accurate? Well, you can go online and see him and Julian at the Chaos Communication Congresses in 2009 and 2008, and it certainly looks like they’re partners.
So, what was fascinating about talking to all these people was getting a real sense of the players. Moreover, the detail and the specificity of stuff that wasn’t in the books led me to believe that there was a lot of credibility in Daniel’s book; it was not some work of fiction. Then the Guardian guys, each one of them has the same story. There’s a consistency, and it’s not just the Guardian guys as a whole, because different people there had the primary relationship with Julian at various times. Each one of them has a very similar story.
Do you think there’s a problem with the fifth estate—the thing, not the movie—that it’s accountable to no one? Whereas at the New York Times, one person wouldn’t have absolute control over the technology or the policy or the practices of what’s being put on the site. Reporters are accountable to editors, who are accountable to publishers, who are accountable to shareholders and a board …
In a very early conversation I had with Nick Lemann, who was dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism, he said the New York Times, while a publicly-traded company, a controlling interest is owned by a private family, and we trust them to act as a check on the government and a check on power because for years and years they have built up a reputation of behaving responsibly and doing good journalism. And we have the sense that within the institution, they train their journalists to act and report in a certain way. They have a certain approach, and moral and ethical standards they try to live up to.
The quality of journalism—that’s why we love newspapers. But a lot of smaller, local papers have out of business, and if they didn’t go out of business, they probably cut their investigative journalism. But the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. And what happens then? Well, you have graft, you have corruption, and there are fewer people out there to monitor that.
So, all of that factors into the quality of the journalism, and that’s why we love newspapers. But a lot of smaller, local papers have out of business, and if they didn’t go out of business, they probably cut their investigative journalism. The script I just finished working on is about when the Boston Globe uncovered the sexual abuse scandal inside the Catholic Church. They basically proved, with good, local, investigative journalism, that Cardinal Law definitely knew 20 years before and just shoved it under the rug. And that there were something like 100 priests in Boston who’d been doing this.
As Clay Shirky has pointed out, in a line I actually paraphrased in the script of The Fifth Estate, “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” And what happens then? Well, what happens is you have graft, you have government corruption, and you have corporate corruption. And there are fewer people out there to serve as a check, to monitor that, to shine a light, to try to stop that from happening.
So, this idea of the fifth estate—of individuals stepping up and filling that void—is very intoxicating. The problem is: do they have the same ethics, the same professionalism, the same morals, the same responsibility? The other night at Harvard I was on a symposium, and Ethan Zuckerman said, “What we try to talk about in our classes [at MIT] is how do we instill that morality into individuals? How do we make individuals behave responsibly?” That’s why the story of Wikileaks is, to me, such a tragedy: because if Assange had behaved responsibly, then he’s a hero who I can look up to. But when he starts behaving irresponsibly—not so much.
That’s why I’m so excited to be here at the Online News Association Conference, because I’m hearing is: training. How do you handle statistics in a way that is thoughtful, as opposed to improperly handle statistics and tell people the wrong things? Having, maybe, local guilds to teach that to individuals, and individuals can go be part of this fifth estate.
The thing that also concerns me is, while I’m all for a fifth estate, it’s certainly easier when you’ve got people who are paying you to do this. I think we get the news we pay for, and I just don’t know if we’re paying enough to get news that’s well done.
There is a line in the movie, “Editing reflects bias.” Do you think there’s any such thing as objectivity in journalism, and if not, what should news organizations and citizen journalists do to deal with that?
Arthur O. Sulzberger , who ran the Times for many years, once said, “You’re not buying news when you buy the New York Times. You’re buying judgment.”
This is the line between reporting and journalism. It has always been the job of the journalist to take a set of facts and turn it into a story that can be consumed by the man on the street and that gets at the heart of what’s happening. So is there such a thing as objective journalism? Anyone who’s telling a story is telling it through a certain lens, but I would argue that just putting facts out there in the ether without any distillation has its own set of problems.
The real tragedy of Wikileaks is that it was such a wonderful idea and such a necessary and needed organization, and if it had been able to transition into being an accountable, responsible organization, it could still be active and could still be doing great work.
Lessig argues that the consumer is not very good at parsing information. We rely on journalists to do that for us, and the reason we choose the New York Times is because they have judgment, because they parse very, very well, and because we trust them to do that.
Now, newspapers can be susceptible as well. The Times was susceptible when we went to war in Iraq: Judith Miller and weapons of mass destruction…
Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair.
Huge failures. Look at what the News of the World was doing. News organizations can break down, but I think the reason we keep buying good journalism is their ability to distill. They’re not perfect, and they need internal checks as well. And that’s part of what our movie is about. But on the whole, I feel comfortable with the news they’re providing us, the job they’re doing, and the degree of objectivity they have.
I thought it was interesting, from a structural point of view, that you used as the turning points of the script events in the characters’ emotional lives, rather than making them about the main plot, since the emotional story is more the sub-plot of the movie.
That was a lesson I learned on “The West Wing,” which is when you have a plot point end an act, it’s much more powerful if it’s an emotional act-out. Obviously, you want to do both, but if you have to choose, always choose an emotional act-out because you’re going to be moved by it in a different way. If you hook Daniel into the idea of Wikileaks as the movie’s inciting incident, then the second half of act one is all fun and games. And then the turn at the end of act one, when Julian reveals that he’s been lying to Daniel about the size of the organization, and in fact it’s just the two of them, is: Wait a second, who am I in bed with? That lie very well may be justified, but to me it’s very telling of Julian and the way he operates. And the act two turn was Kenya, because we were trying to show the stakes going up. We wanted to show where Julian was emotionally.
It makes the audience more sympathetic of him, when the moments leading up to that are partly about his acting questionably.
Yeah, and I also think it makes you understand why he started to make the decisions he did, because they weren’t breaking through. Julian talks about this at the Chaos Communication Congress in 2009, and it’s really heartbreaking, where he talks about his friend dying, and how do you get people to care.
When I talked to Nick Davies about why Julian agreed to come into the Guardian, they said that was it: How do I get people to care? Collateral Murder was a bit of a success, but he just wasn’t getting the kind of traction he wanted. I think that was a big motivator later on.
What’s the biggest lesson, after all the time you’ve spent researching this and talking to the principals involved, of the story of Wikileaks?
To me, the real tragedy of Wikileaks is that it was such a wonderful idea and such a necessary and needed organization, that if it had been able to transition into being an accountable, responsible organization, it could still be active and could still be doing great work. They had just built a secure platform, they had just come onto the world stage. If Assange had redacted the Afghan war logs, if he had not put out the cables, if when the rape allegations occurred, he had stepped aside—or if he had said, “These are personal issues and I’m going to deal with them personally, with my personal funds,” as opposed to, “These are issues of Wikileaks and I’m going to use Wikileaks funding for my defense.” He could have made any number of choices that would have allowed the organization to survive, and that’s, to me, the true tragedy.
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