An exchange with New York Time reporter John Burns

Dear Mr. Burns,

In today’s Times piece on Julian Assange’s confinement at the Ecuadorian embassy, you inexplicably omit a crucial element necessary to a full understanding of the story: did Mr. Assange flush the embassy toilet. Your readers require that all subsequent reports on Mr. Assange make mention of this
crucial matter. Please continue to uphold the journalistic standards for which the Times is legendary, this unfortunate lapse notwithstanding.

Best Regards,

John Halle

Burns responds

On Aug 19, 2012, at 9:59 AM, John Fisher Burns wrote:
Your point? That we should never have reported the (unfailing) complaint about his carelessness in matters of personal hygiene that have been made by his (many) hosts.

And what next? No mention of his unpaid legal bills? No mention of the Swedish women and their allegations? Perhaps just a reprinting of his statements without any analysis at all.

John Fisher Burns
London Bureau Chief
The New York Times

My response:

From: John Halle – [email protected]
To: John Fisher Burns [email protected]
Sent: Sun, Aug 19, 2012 3:55 pm
Subject: Re: READER MAIL: John F. Burns

As you know perfectly well, the allegation of his failing to flush the embassy toilet was made by one of Assange’s detractors, not one of his hosts.

That this was deleted from subsequent versions of the story demonstrates the that Times editorial staff was itself embarrassed by the story. You should be too.

Your mania for smearing Assange requires your resorting to falsifactions on even the most trivial matters. That’s the point.


Burns’s response:

Absolute nonsense, and irresponsible nonsense, too. Have you spoken to those hosts, as we have? Have you spoken to us, to verify who we have spoken to?

In fact, have you done any homework at all, or are you just venting? God help if that is your dedication to truth-seeking.

John Fisher Burns
London Bureau Chief
The New York Times

My response:

Nonsense? How so? That the Times did not delete the toilet flushing reference in subsequent versions of the story?

New York Times’s Article on Julian Assange’s Ecuadorian Asylum Scrubs Toilet Reference

That the initial charge of Assange’s toilet flushing lapses was not made by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and that he is not one of Assange’s best known antagonists?

Good to see Times reporters continuing to uphold the great traditions established by Judith Miller! And typically responding with ad hominem attacks when called out on their lies.


Burns response:

So you’re relying on a Wikileaks’ account of what the Times printed? Why don’t you do the sort of thing you’d expect of any reliable academic researcher, and cite the original — if you can. There was certainly nothing in the Times for which I was responsible that made any reference to his toilet habits at the embassy, and for many reasons — one of them being that we never heard that from embassy sources, as far as I know (and I should, since I am the London bureau chief). I’m guessing that what you’re relying on its material that has been tweeted and re-treated, not original source stuff, something more akin to Chinese whispers, since our reporting at earlier, pre-embassy stages of this story did include very reliable source material on Assange’s odd habits as a houseguest.. If you can show otherwise, I’ll be happy to look further and find out what happened.

My response:

So you’re relying on a Wikileaks’ account of what the Times printed?

Obviously not, as you can see for yourself if you bother to read what I wrote: I sent a link to a New York Observer piece which itself links to a screen shot of a New York Times tweet making direct “reference to (Assange’s) toilet habits”.

As for the contents of the tweet, you now deny responsibility for it. OK. But it is certainly reasonable to surmise that this derived from or was at least signed off on by the Times London bureau chief.

As for the general matter of what is revealed by a careful, academically informed study of Times reports including tracking down the original sources on which they are based, as Chomsky and Herman showed many years ago, and as the organization FAIR and independent journalists such as Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill have repeatedly demonstrated recently, doing so will result in greater (not lesser) skepticism of Times reporting. Furthermore, doing so will show that on occasion what appears in the Times can only be categorized as “lies”. If there is any doubt on this score, I will reiterate the Judith Miller reference, which you seem to want to ignore, understandably. For others, I refer you to the researchers noted above among many others.


What a narrow and partisan base you have chosen for your opinions (Glenn Greenwald! Look him up). Seems like you start with a conclusion, then hunt around for selectibe evidemce with which to support it. Would you accept that from any of your students. To me, it’s an obvious perversion of the academic principle of establishing your facts first, then extraopolating for your conclusions. And, since you repeat the untruth, I did not know, and never approved, any reference to his toilet habits. But then that will be as nothing to you, of course, since you already have your convictions.

and (on a parallel thread)

And typically responding with ad hominem attacks when called out on their lies.

I believe you are co-founder of an organization calling itself Common Sense. And that’s what would be helpful here, not these broad-swipe characterizations that may suit political predilections, but not the facts. Does great music flow from the sort of malign passion that informs the use of words like “lies” to describe the work of reporters at the Times?

I respond:

Yes, great art is informed by truth, including uncomfortable truths.

Burns responds:

Yes, truths. Not malicious suppositions. There is a difference, as even a cursry study of the lives of the great composers will now doubt remind you.


No response necessary from me at this point.

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