When Anderson Cooper began a syndicated talk show, his first guest was the grieving father of Amy Winehouse.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, unveiled a new talk show on Tuesday with his own version of a sensational get: the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Mr. Assange, whose show is carried by RT, a Kremlin-backed news network and Web site, boasted that it was Mr. Nasrallah’s first interview in the West since 2006. And the two wanted men had a cozy chat, even though they weren’t on the same couch or even on the same continent.
They discussed Israel, Lebanon and Syria on a video link: Mr. Assange is under house arrest in Britain; Mr. Nasrallah, who is very high on the list of Israeli high-value targets, spoke from a secret location in Lebanon. They talked through interpreters but still managed to kid around a little.
Mr. Nasrallah noted wryly that even the most sophisticated Israeli decryption technology couldn’t decipher the village slang his young fighters use over walkie-talkies. No computer analyst, he said, “is going to understand what the father of the chicken is and why they call him the father of the chicken.” Mr. Nasrallah added with a twinkle, “It’s not going to do you any good at WikiLeaks, by the way.”
The two men laughed companionably.
Mr. Assange says the theme of his half-hour show on RT is “the world tomorrow.” But there is something almost atavistic about the outlet he chose. RT, first known as Russia Today, is an English-language news network created by the Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin in 2005 to promote the Kremlin line abroad. (It also broadcasts in Spanish and Arabic.) It’s like the Voice of America, only with more money and a zesty anti-American slant. A few correspondents can sound at times like Boris and Natasha of “Rocky & Bullwinkle” fame. Basically, it’s an improbable platform for a man who poses as a radical left-wing whistleblower and free-speech frondeur battling the superpowers that be.
The show is unlikely to win high ratings or change many minds, but it may serve Mr. Assange’s other agenda: damage control.
His reputation has taken a deep plunge since he shook the world in 2010 by releasing, in cooperation with The New York Times and several other news organizations, masses of secret government documents, including battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Most news organizations edited and redacted the papers to protect lives. Mr. Assange put everything on his Web site. To some he was a hero, to others a spy, but nowadays he is most often portrayed as a nut job.
Sweden is seeking his extradition on multiple charges of sexual misconduct; disgruntled former WikiLeaks colleagues describe him as grandiose and paranoid. Mr. Assange tells reporters that he is being persecuted for political reasons, which, even if true, doesn’t exactly help his case. Perhaps having worn out his welcome, Mr. Assange has left a British supporter’s country estate, where he spent more than 300 days under house arrest, and is now in more modest quarters in the south of England.
On his talk show Mr. Assange was a little stiff but sounded rational, didn’t talk much about himself and asked Mr. Nasrallah some tough questions about Hezbollah’s support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. He even cited reports, found by WikiLeaks, that suggested corruption and high living among some members of Hezbollah. (Mr. Assange cited S.U.V.’s, silk robes and “take-away food” as signs of decadence.)
In a preshow promotional interview with an RT reporter, Mr. Assange said he chose that network because it has greater penetration in the United States than Al Jazeera and because no other networks would have him. He isn’t looking forward to the reviews of his show. He predicted that The Times, among others, would dismiss him as “an enemy combatant and traitor getting into bed with the Kremlin.”
Of course, practically speaking, Mr. Assange is in bed with the Kremlin, but on Tuesday’s show he didn’t put out.
Moscow is at odds with Washington over Syria, and RT accordingly colors its reports from Damascus with sharp digs at the West and American support of opposition fighters that RT describes as “terrorists.”