The Hill | 8 Aug 2016
A fascinating and unprecedented interview took place on HBO’s “Real Time” between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and longtime host Bill Maher.
Why “fascinating” and “unprecedented”?
Because for the first time since I’ve been covering media, an interviewee called out an interviewer with hacked content about him, presenting it publicly for the first time for more than 1 million viewers to see at home and countless more in viral replays.
To review, Maher was hammering Assange, saying he was “working with a bad actor [Russia] to put [his] thumb on the scale [against Hillary Clinton] and basically f— with the one person who stands in the way of us being ruled by Donald Trump.”
The accusation comes after WikiLeaks released almost 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee illustrating a coordinated effort by the supposedly neutral DNC against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) during the Democratic primary season.
The evidence was so embarrassing, so blatant, so clear that Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had to resign and many top staffers also were forced to step down.
Maher, however, insisted to Assange that “there was no plot” to take down Sanders and kept pressing him to find information damaging to the Republican nominee.
“Why don’t you hack into Donald Trump’s tax returns?” asked Maher.
“Well, we’re working on it,” replied Assange.
WikiLeaks later walked back the statement via Twitter, saying “WikiLeaks isn’t ‘working on’ hacking Trump’s tax-returns. Claim is a joke from a comedy show. We are ‘working on’ encouraging whistleblowers.”
It was then that Assange, who conducted the interview from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, posed an unexpected question to Maher:
“Just before I came here we thought we’d do a little search in our files, and I do notice that a William Maher gave a Clinton-affiliated entity a million dollars,” Assange said. “Now it’s a William Maher in Los Angeles at the time that it came.”
“Perhaps you’d like to comment. Is that you?” he asked.
Maher — who clearly heard the question correctly — quickly deflected to a $1 million donation he made four years ago to the Obama reelection campaign.
“I don’t think you have to look in your files to find that, Julian,” he condescendingly scolded Assange to applause. “I, I, I gave Obama a million dollars. I made it public.”
“The whole point of it was to make it public so people in 2012 would understand that the game had moved to the million-dollar level after our Citizens United ruling,” Maher explained. “I wasn’t trying to hide it. I was trying to publicize it. I don’t know what the point is.”
Assange pushed back: “Is there another million dollars going to Hillary or equivalent?”
“F— no,” replied Maher. “I can’t give a million dollars anytime someone runs for president.”
The two moved on from there.
But does that settle the issue?
Maher can contribute to whichever candidate he likes. It’s his money and his right. And just like Rush Limbaugh, Maher is an entertainer and political satirist, not a journalist. If he did donate to Clinton, he’s not breaking any rules.
His net worth is estimated to be between $22 million to $30 million. He recently signed a new multimillion-dollar contract through 2018. His viewership has never been higher.
But his dismissal of making this donation to Clinton is a particularly hard sell.
According to the White Pages, there are exactly three people named William Maher currently living in Los Angeles.
So if Maher is to be believed, that he’s not the William Maher who made a $1 million donation to Hillary Clinton — which is the same exact amount the HBO star very publicly made to President Obama in 2012 — then one of the other two Los Angeles-based men named William Maher made the gaudy donation.
Given that a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the U.S. population makes donations of that amount to any campaign, the odds that this Bill Maher of Los Angeles — celebrity and activist — didn’t write this check are almost impossible-to-one.
So if it turns out to be the case that HBO’s Bill Maher made the donation, what are the consequences in terms of trust with his audience? You can agree or disagree with the 60-year-old Maher, a popular figure who draws an average of 4.4 million viewers per week (when including reruns) to a political panel program on a pay channel, a remarkable feat and one that underscores his ability to draw eyeballs and periodically shape narratives.
But if he blatantly lied to Assange, to his audience, what does that say about his credibility? Part of Maher’s appeal is being brutally candid and authentic in his convictions. He may be inelegant, he may go way over the line (calling Sarah Palin the c-word, for example), but few doubt the sincerity of his principles.
If Maher is lying here, what does this do to him exactly? Will his audience care?
They should. Because regardless of occupation in the public eye — journalist, opinion-maker, entertainer or a hybrid of the three — your word is your bond. And once that toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s a huge challenge to get it back in.
According to WikiLeaks, one of three people named William Maher made a $1 million donation to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
One of the three — who has made a donation for that amount to another Democratic presidential candidate in the last presidential election — says it isn’t him.
Do you really believe that?
And if the guy who prides himself on being unapologetically honest is caught lying red-handed here, will it even matter?