Let a Thousand Public Editors Bloom: Bradley Manning and the Times Pt. 3

The New York Times’ named Margaret Sullivan as its fifth Public Editor in September of this year. As the successful candidate for the job her duty is to investigate “matters of journalistic integrity” by working “independently” and “outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper.”

So far, and with very few blemishes, she has done an exemplary job. She recently scrutinized her boss Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.’s choice to hire former BBC Director General Mark Thompson as the Times’ new CEO. Regarding the pedophilia scandal that has rocked that public institution and that Thompson oversaw for part of his career,  Margaret asked “How likely is it that he knew nothing?” She also wrote that “It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job.”

Some of her other work has been a bit spotty. While acknowledging the “nascent, half-formed thoughts” of Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren’s chauvinistic Facebook posts she also used biased language to describe the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah – language that  favored the former while de-legitimizing the latter.

But on the whole Margaret has done a good job. The Times size and output must make her role as Public Editor a daunting role to fill – if not practically an impossible one – even with the help of her assistant Joseph Burgess. The past week provides a good example.

On November 28th Margaret gave note to her readers that she’d be “off the grid” till the middle of this week and reassured us that “there are a lot of pressing topics out there, and I look forward to coming back to tackle some of them.”

On November 29th, one day after Margaret left, her paper published a short Associated Press (AP) article on page A3 of the print edition noting that Pfc. Bradley Manning – who is “charged in the biggest leak of classified documents in United States history” and regarded by many around the world as today’s foremost prisoner of conscious – began his third day of testimony.

Although the Times failed to send a journalist to Manning’s trial, and Margaret was off the grid, many readers were upset by the Times’ reporting and themselves sought to provide critical commentary and analysis of the paper’s journalistic lapse.

Here at NYT eXaminer, on November 30th, we published Chris Floyd’s article, “Blanking Bradley Manning: NYT and AP Launch Operation Amnesia,” which took lethal aim at the Times’ journalistic failure by, among other criticisms, comparing the papers’ coverage of Bradley Manning to their coverage of Russian prisoners of conscience Pussy Riot. Chris points out that Pussy Riot has received far more substantive coverage than Manning.

Then on December 5th, we published Murray Polner’s “Bradley Manning & The Times, Part II” which documented his attempts to “email the Times’ Public Editor asking why the paper had so little coverage.”

Also on December 5th, Margaret returned to her office and posted a Public Editor’s Journal entry, “The Times Should Have a Reporter at the Bradley Manning Hearing” in which she made the praise worthy – yet obvious – assertion that “In failing to send its own reporter to cover the fascinating and important pretrial testimony of Bradley Manning, The New York Times missed the boat.”

This problem, however, precedes Margaret’s break by at least two days before she left, when, as the Times’ AP story explains, Manning “began his third day of testimony.” In addition, as far as we know, no Times’ Editor stepped forward before Margaret left or while she was away to rectify their paper’s failure. Will they do so now?

The need for a Public Editor is clear and the Times should be commended for having one. But the timeline of events suggest that even prior to her going away Public Editor Margaret neglected to notice Manning’s trial.

By the time Margaret clued in to her paper’s lack of coverage many news outlets and journalists had already beat the paper to the punch. The Guardian’s Ed PilkingtonAlexa O’Brien and also Kevin Gosztola, among others, provided an important service by documenting Manning’s court proceedings in clear legal detail and through a humane eye.

But, thanks largely to the Times’ failure to report on the proceedings, Times’ readers and most other people in the U.S. wouldn’t know it was even happening nor how Bradley Manning’s human rights have been violated.

It is very important for anyone inside the Times to come forward and make the observation, like Margaret did, that the Times should have sent a reporter to the trial. However, the Times’ failure to report responsibly on Manning long precedes Margaret’s assignment to the Public Editor post.

Last December 2011, NYT eXaminer reported on how the Times marginalized the opening of Manning’s pretrial hearings during that month, just before Christmas and also at the same time as news of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq occupied headlines.

One of the few Times’ articles to be written then mentioning that opening trial, “Private in WikiLeaks Spying Case Goes to Court” by Scott Shane, quoted Eugene R. Fidell, a teacher of military justice at Yale commenting, “This is one of the most interesting military cases of the last 20 years…”

In stark contrast to Times’ reporting today, Shane wrote then that, “Reporters from around the world are covering the hearing, with a dozen at a time in the cramped courtroom and about 50 others following the proceedings on a video link from an adjacent media center.”

Shane’s account gave readers hope then that his paper took Manning’s trial seriously and would cover it responsibly into the future. However, just over six months later, in June 2012, NYT eXaminer’s Marie Burns asked, “What Ever Happened to Bradley Manning?” She answered that:

“Evidently, nothing. Or so you would think if you relied on New York Times’ coverage. Bradley Manning, as Times’ readers may recall if they consult their way-back machines, is the American soldier whom the U.S. Army has charged with crimes related to his alleged passing of classified material to WikiLeaks. … His court-martial, being held at Fort Meade…”

Margaret Sullivan has signed a contract with the Times for four years. While she is still in her first year she should take note of how her paper had already failed to responsibly cover Bradley Manning long before she was accepted to come on board. This will make it easier for her to see her paper’s pattern of reporting on Manning during her remaining tenure there.

Margaret notes in her journal post that the Times published some of those documents that Manning allegedly gave to WikiLeaks – publications including 250,000 U.S. Embassy cables known as “Cablegate,” the Afghan War Dairies, Iraq War Logs and the Collateral Murder video.

The implication of her observation – although Margaret does not say so herself – is that, for those documents that the Times did publish, Manning was a source for the paper. According to the Atlantic,nearly half of 2011′s New York Times issues relied on WikiLeaks.

So why does the Times ignore and under-report Manning who is one of their most important sources since Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers? In 2011 NYT eXaminer interviewed WikiLeaks’ Editor Julian Assange about the Times treatment of Manning. Assange said:

I think the New York Times treats its very high-level politically powerful sources rather well. In fact it gives them the spin they want when they hand something over to pursue their agenda. Manning, I presume, is seen by the New York Times to be just a low level soldier. And so it doesn’t matter. If he is a source for the New York Times it doesn’t matter because he can be just swept aside. He’s not politically powerful. He does not have any connections.

In her Public Editor’s Journal entry Margaret referred to the piece from the Associated Press that the Timesran noting that the paper did not ignore Manning’s current trial completely. Rightly not satisfied, she asked Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt why the Times didn’t send a reporter to the most recent Fort Meade hearing.

The bureau chief’s response to Margaret’s question that, “as with any other legal case, we won’t cover every single proceeding,” contrasts sharply to Scott Shane’s report from last year’s opening trial expressing views that Manning’s case is the most important military case in the last two decades and that reporters from all around the world were cramming into the courtroom with many others following a video link in another room.

David’s answer illustrates a major problem with the Times’ false objectivity. By saying that they have covered Manning and “and will continue to do so” means that they will do so in a particular way to marginalize the importance of his case. For example, he says that Manning’s case does not deserve to have a dedicated reporter because it is a “relatively straightforward story.”

So far, the Times has done their bare minimum to cover the story of Manning – just enough to say they have. Can we expect that pattern to change on its own?

As NYT eXaminer argued in detail February of this year, “The Fourth Estate Forfeiting Its Own Press Freedoms: WikiLeaks & The New York Times,” this story has many constitutional and legal precedents with implications for press freedoms and free speech. The Times should have regular and serious coverage of Manning’s case for these reasons, if not simply because the Times has profited so much from WikiLeaks’ material.

That the Washington bureau chief promises “readers can definitely expect more coverage of Mr. Manning in the weeks to come” is likely true. But readers of the Times can also definitely expect to see more ink spilled in the paper’s pages and “digital ink” online about this season’s holiday dinner recipes than about Manning.

Margaret Sullivan says that the Times should have a reporter at Manning’s trial. Yes. She is right. Good for her for making this observation. But she does not go deep enough in her diagnosis of the problem. Perhaps her job is too much for one person and an assistant. We should all become Public Editors to hold the Times, and other mainstream media, accountable to matters of journalist integrity. 

Chris Spannos is Founder and Editor of NYT eXaminer (NYTX). You can find out more about NYTX on our website. To support our work please donate. 


Leave a comment