If any news outlet should feel a responsibility to cover the ongoing hearing in the case of Bradley Manning, accused of leaking countless US government and military documents (and an infamous video) via WikiLeaks to the worldwide media—it would seem to be The New York Times.
After all, this newspaper in 2010, published hundreds of articles based on the documents, many of them topping its website or featured on its front page in print. None of that would have happened without Manning, if indeed he is guilty of passing the documents.
The newspaper has also, in the past two years, published numerous stories about Manning, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks operation and its offshoots, some of them drawing strong criticism.
Nevertheless, when the Manning case reached a key point, starting two weeks ago, with the defendant testifying for the first time, the Times failed to send a reporter to cover it, relying instead on sketchy and scattered Associated Press reports. It finally assigned a reporter, Scott Shane, to the courtroom, for part of one day, last Friday, but only after a barrage of criticism, including from the paper’s new public editor, Margaret Sullivan.
Her online piece early last week hit the paper for failing to send a reporter to the military hearings at Fort Meade, near Washington, DC. The paper’s DC chief, Dave Leonhardt, replied to Sullivan’s query: “We’ve covered him and will continue to do so. But as with any other legal case, we won’t cover every single proceeding. In this case, doing so would have involved multiple days of a reporter’s time, for a relatively straightforward story. The AP article recounting the main points of Mr. Manning’s testimony about his conditions of confinement that ran on page A3 of The Times conveyed fundamentally the same material as a staff story would have.”
But Sullivan quoted a new New Republic piece and a Times reader both bashing the paper. Sullivan concluded: “One doesn’t have to agree with either of those viewpoints or interpretations of events to see the news value of the Manning testimony at Fort Meade. The testimony is dramatic and the overarching issues are important. The Times should be there.”
As if in response to this scolding and plea (and from many other sources), the Times finally sent someone to cover the Manning hearing—for a few hours, and a week late. Scott Shane produced a story for the Saturday paper, along with Charlie Savage back in the office. Kevin Gosztola, a former Nation reporter and co-author of my book on the Manning case, applauded the move but found the story wanting, and dissects it here.
Sullivan was also pleased with the belated response, but returned to the subject with her Sunday column, which updated and expanded her blog post. She concluded, “As a matter of news judgment, giving so little coverage to the hearing is simply weird. This is a compelling story, and an important one.… I hope that something significant is in the works. It might begin to make more sense of a decision that is otherwise hard to understand.”
This probably isn’t what she had in mind, but: Late Sunday it emerged that Manning has easily won—with 70 percent of the vote against other finalists such as Nate Silver and Pussy Riot—a reader poll as Person of the Year at The Guardian, which seems a bit embarrassed by it (despite publishing at least as many WIkiLeaks scoops as the Times).