Did the media drop the ball on the Bradley Manning trial?

“The corporate media coverage of this trial, which is arguably one of the most important cases in modern American history, has been utterly shameful,” Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill said on “Democracy Now!” Tuesday after U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was found guilty of 20 charges related to his leaks of classified information to WikiLeaks.

“This is the state of media in this country right now, and it is just devastating that we don’t have a media culture that says this should have been gavel-to-gavel coverage,” Scahill said.

“Only a few American news organizations (one is the Guardian’s US edition) bothered to staff the Manning trial in any serious way,” Dan Gillmor writes. “Independent journalists did most of the work, and did it as well as it could be done under the circumstances.”

I’ve developed a complete disdain for the mainstream media,” the independent journalist Alexa O’Brien told We Are Change. “It’s really important that people of good conscience, citizens, come to the fore and do the things that the press are not doing.”

There were similar complaints about the Kermit Gosnell trial. As Poynter’s Kelly McBride said of that event, it was “surprising that more outlets haven’t covered it, but it’s not entirely fair to say that national media haven’t reported on it.” I personally read many stories about Manning’s trial, but not enough that I’m comfortable opining on whether the above criticisms are fair.

This piece won’t try to make any such assertion. But I think it’s important to hear from reporters and representatives from, for lack of a better term, some of the mainstream outlets who covered the Manning trial.

“One can start getting into an argument about whether the Zimmerman trial” or other high-profile cases “deserve the level of coverage they get,” Politico reporter Josh Gerstein told Poynter by phone. “In that respect, I would probably agree with the criticism.” Gerstein covered the Manning case for the past three months, though he wasn’t at the court every day.

The military’s arrangements for the press “have been kind of complicated and annoying,” Gerstein said. You couldn’t file from the courtroom, the Internet connection was dicey and you had to have an escort from the gates. (Reporters there had many complaints about harassment.) Gerstein began attending the trial as a member of the public, he said, to minimize hassle.

“I think there’s a lot of trials that ought to get a lot more coverage,” Gerstein said. The paces through which the military put journalists covering the trial, for instance making documents difficult to obtain, are “actually a problem in court martials across the board,” he said.

All those inconveniences may have bumped up against budget realities for a lot of news organizations: A reporter there every day couldn’t count on “a reasonable yield of news for the time investment,” Gerstein said. “There’s a lot of downtime involved in covering the case.” And for increasing numbers of news organizations, such use of reporters’ time is a luxury.

“[W]e’ve been all over the Manning trial since the beginning,” AP spokesperson Paul Colford told Poynter via email. He referred me to a “by no means all-inclusive roundup” of David Dishneau’s stories, as well as video reports.

Reached via Twitter, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage said: “I or one of my colleagues were at the trial & the pretrial hearings many days, although not every day” and referred me to this topics page.

“I think mainstream media coverage of the trial has been patchy, certainly. when you compare with Bulger trial, or Trayvon Martin, or other criminal trials that have caught the imagination,” Ed Pilkington, who covered the trial for the Guardian, wrote in an email, which I’ve edited lightly for style. “I can understand why that is — this is a complicated trial about technical issues. But I do think the serious news outlets have missed the story here — the very serious implications of such a massive ramping up of the treatment of whistleblowers and official leakers as today’s verdict has demonstrated.”

I asked Pilkington, who said he wasn’t at the trial every day, which if any outlets he thought did a good job covering the trial. He named O’Brien, as well as Kevin Gosztola, who wrote about the trial for FireDogLake. The AP’s work was “impressive,” Pilkington said, and he also saluted The Washington Post’s Julie Tate.

“I think what has happened is that you’ve had a very healthy spawning of Web-based journalism such as Alexa and Kevin, and that has helped to fill in some of the holes left by the insufficiences of the main news outlets,” Pilkington wrote.

But they couldn’t hope to make up for the gap entirely – partly cos they have tiny resources compared with the big guns, and partly because they are not writing for the wide open and uninformed public, they are writing for quite engaged audiences. So very few people are out there trying to translate a very complex trial to the general public.

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  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Reporters are entertainers first and journalists second.
    And that is how it should be. There is a never ending supply of issues that voters should think hard about (until they reach the politically correct decision). Making them think too hard and too often on issues that they have already made up their mind will only alienate them from reading newspapers and watching news broadcasts. If a reporter wants to really force voters to think, he should go to work for a totalitarian government.

  • Snertly

    Seems there were some 1160 days preceding today wherein the question posed above would have been more timely and more relevant.

    Better get started on that Edward Snowden, his personal quirks and educational history article.

  • BrotherMatthias

    BTW, also nauseating is the U.S.-Anglo left-wing media — from the Guardian to the Nation — cheering that this punk got maybe one decade shaved off his likely sentence. (I don’t consider FireDogLake a real media outlet, although in our predominantly biased media, left-wing blogs are media. Sites like Brietbart are the devil’s spawn.)

    The traitor Bradley Manning will still be thrown in Leavenworth, and I will drink to that! (Don’t cry in my beer, Glenn.)

  • BrotherMatthias

    Manning is a spy and traitor, and there was never any doubt about his guilt — as he confessed to a few charges. The only issue was one count of aiding the enemy. He was acquitted. He will still be thrown down a hole for his crimes, and deservedly so. It nauseates me he is allowed to wear a U.S. Army uniform.

  • http://hacktext.com/ AramZS

    I don’t really think you should be covering ANY trials gavel to gavel. MSM coverage of cases like Trayvon Martin borders on irresponsible in its pervasiveness, implied judgement and slant. The news is what the trial result is. In this particular case how the trial came to be is worth covering as well, but the particulars of the trial itself are not newsworthy unless there is corruption involved.

    We’ve created a media environment where reporters place themselves as judge and jury in too many of these cases. Unless you’re reporting on why the trial system doesn’t work, then we assume a trust in the system. We don’t report on how the government selects its vehicles unless there is a serious problem in the process itself. I’d argue the same should be true for trials. I assume the trial process is functional, I want to know the results and the consequences of those results. If the judge has issued some sort of opinion following the trial, I’d like an interpretation of that. I’m not interested in the rest of the immense and ludicrous circus that tends to follow trials with high levels of media coverage.

  • Edward Ericson Jr

    You cut the news rooms by two-thirds and this is what happens. Manning was covered. There were dozens of trials within a 50 mile radius of it that were not. No journalists at all. There are whole court houses where reporters hardly ever go, just as there are city halls, police stations and even state houses.

    You make reporting for a news organization a $25,000 a year job, demand everything that the reporter sees or hears be tweeted within five minutes, put her to work for three hours a day on “social media strategies,” take away all the copy editors, and then you ask this question?