For over a year, the story of Bradley Manning has been covered by a handful of journalists, many of them young, independent bloggers or reporters who have tirelessly shown up at hearing after hearing while more mainstream press has largely stayed home. The clearest example of this came during the hearings on Manning’s pretrial punishment, which I write about in the new issue of Rolling Stone, when – after a series of scathing tweets from some of the aforementioned independent reporters – The New York Times’ public editor called her own newspaper on its negligence. The Times then began sending a reporter to the proceedings. Now, thanks to Manning’s stunning testimony in court yesterday, we learn that both The Washington Post and The New York Times – the papers that broke Watergate and published the Pentagon Papers, respectively – were offered the entire trove of Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs long before Manning turned to Wikileaks as a last resort. According to Manning’s statement, they failed to respond.
This is remarkable on several levels. Some observers of the Wikileaks case have long maintained that Manning’s treatment has served a larger government strategy to pressure him into turning on Julian Assange. Manning in many ways has been a proxy for Assange, often cast as a sinister “co-conspirator” in a form of technological espionage. But as we now know, Manning only turned to Assange after more mainstream avenues didn’t pan out. “He was a traditional leaker,” says Michael Ratner, a lawyer for Assange who has monitored the Manning case. “He was 22, he had information he felt was important, he was upset by it, and he wanted to get that information out. He tried the Post, he tried the Times, and then he looked at Wikileaks. That shows the importance of having an alternative way of getting out information, because without Wikileaks, this information would never have seen the light of day.”
Neither the Post nor the Times have confirmed Manning’s account. In response to an email from Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for the Post told me that “to my knowledge,” Manning never contacted the paper. The Times also claims to have no record of Manning’s call to its public editor. Michael McElroy, the former assistant to the public editor, has said his office received “hundreds of calls” per week, but “[i]f I’d heard something like that, I certainly hope I would have flagged it immediately.”
To give the papers credit, Manning never said he told either the Post or the Times that he was a soldier, let alone one with a top-secret security clearance. In the case of The New York Times, he seems to have shared very little, other than that he had “important” information about Afghanistan and Iraq he felt the public should know. He was no Deep Throat. The question is, did he need to be?
Manning is not as flamboyant as Julian Assange, who is wanted for questioning in Sweden on allegations of sexual assault, and is currently holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, hoping to avoid extradition to the United States. He is also a very young man who could probably be forgiven for not understanding how the mainstream press works. And how does it work? According to Manning, the reporter from the Post who he spoke with talked to him for some time about the nature of the information he had, but told him she’d have to see the documents and share them with her editors before making a decision about publishing. This is standard for any journalistic organization, including Rolling Stone. But the question, which Firedoglake’s Kevin Gosztola, one of the most dogged chroniclers of the Manning story, raised yesterday, is what the Post, or the Times, would have done had they obtained the logs. “Would they have notified the government they now possessed the documents?” asked Gosztola. The Times, after all, “communicated with the government when preparing to publish State Department cables.”
Gosztola believes this episode shows the toothlessness of the mainstream media, which failed to report a major story when it had the chance. While it has merit, this analysis skips over the fact that the mainstream media did, in fact, report the story – many of them – albeit after another news organization, Wikileaks, got there first. If nothing else, this chapter of the Manning case should spark some hard questions about the value of the press as a check on governmental power, and the extent to which the mainstream press has ceded ground to organizations like Wikileaks.
But it should also force us to question the value of information, however it is obtained, as well as those who provide it. During a pretrial hearing in January, the government maintained that they would have prosecuted Manning for espionage and “aiding the enemy” whether he leaked to Wikileaks or The New York Times. In fact, prosecutors stated they saw no difference between the two. While Wikileaks and the Times are different animals, they do have this in common: Both use their sources, as all journalists do, and they both used Bradley Manning, to maximum effect. The Times may have ignored Manning’s initial call, but it ultimately profited greatly from his leaks by “partnering” with Wikileaks on both the war logs and the cables, which the Times‘ managing editor at the time, Bill Keller, referred to as a “treasure” that “contained the makings of many dozens of stories.” Julian Assange, the far greater profiteer, became a celebrity while his source, who has never betrayed any personal knowledge of him, languished in prison. Today, at the close of this round of hearings, the government announced that it intends to push ahead with its robust prosecution of Manning, His court martial is slated to begin in June. If convicted, he faces life in prison. The judge, however, can always opt for the death penalty.