‘The N.Y. Times is the paper of record that published and stood behind the Pentagon Papers. Where are you now on the brutal prison treatment and studied legalities being visited on US Army Private Bradley Manning? […] It’s unconscionable and sad if The Times sits quietly by saying nothing.’
Such, in short, is the case against the New York Times, made here by a lay reader of the paper in a letter to the public editor, and explored at some length by Eliza Gray in an article for the New Republic. To recap: Bradley Manning is the Army intelligence analyst charged with disclosing, to WikiLeaks, more than 260,000 diplomatic cables, around 90,000 intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan and one video of a military helicopter attack — much of it classified. In the last week, having previously been detained in what have been widely denounced as unacceptably severe conditions (including two months in a ‘cage’ in a dark tent in Kuwait, and a subsequent nine months in 23-hours-a-day solitary confinement), Manning has been testifying publically for the first time since May 2010. The Times has not ignored the event completely – it published a short piece from the Associated Press on Friday – but, unlike many other papers, it has not sent its own reporter to cover in detail the pre-trial testimony.
Yesterday’s pronouncement from the public editor of the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, was typically unequivocal. In stating baldly that ‘the testimony is dramatic and the overarching issues are important […] The Times should be there’, Sullivan appears to give credence to allegations, implicit in the letters and statements that she quotes in her post, that the Times, having gained from the original disclosures, is both literally and symbolically distancing itself from their source.
‘It’s really crazy,’ says Michael Ratner, a human rights lawyer from the Centre for Constitutional Rights, who counts Julian Assange as a client. ‘The key leaker in U.S. history in the last decade, and they don’t cover his treatment? He’s the one whose materials they used and they don’t cover it? I don’t get it. They had to make a decision not to do it.’
‘We’ve covered him and will continue to do so’, was the official response from David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief: ‘but as with any other legal case, we won’t cover every single proceeding.’ Analysis in The Atlantic Wire from April 2011 showed that 54 (nearly half) of the newspaper’s 115 thus far in that year had carried stories that ‘relied on WikiLeaks documents as sources’. Pte Manning may be an ambassador for transparency and truth-telling or an dangerously unbalanced traitor, according to taste. What seems to be beyond doubt, however, is that, without the likes of Manning to provide crucial information in the first instance, it is legitimate to point out that ‘newspapers like the New York Times would suddenly see their source of so much Pulitzer-prize worthy material dry up’.