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.