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In U. S. media mythology, the years from the mid-‘60s to the mid-’70s were the classical age, a heroic time of moral clarity. Mainstream journalism marinated in a high-minded adversarialism. Little Southern newspapers infuriated their own readers and courted physical reprisal by staring down segregation. Foreign correspondents forced upon an unwilling domestic public the realities of a brutal, murderous war. Network news organizations ignored official anger and insisted on showing the bottomless suffering the war inflicted on the innocents it was allegedly being waged to save. With the Pentagon Papers, the country’s most respected newspapers defied secrecy rules to expose government lies. With the Watergate coverage, reporters forced out a corrupt president.
True, that retelling is a bit of myth-spinning; the media never were quite that gutsy. Most of the Southern press stayed within the segregationist mainstream, and you didn’t have to look hard to see media depictions of the civil rights movement as rancorous and impatient. The press indulged official lies about Vietnam for years, and began reporting the antiwar movement sympathetically only after the public lost faith in the war. Watergate was a victory for the courts and Congress far more than it was for the Washington Post.
Still, myths illuminate. They may get the past wrong, but they’re telling reflections of the present, of today’s values and aspirations. What we’d like to think was true then reflects what we hope might still be true now.
And in that spirit let me suggest that over the past decade or so, it’s as if that classical, epic moment of press defiance and struggle has been turned on its head. The media today, compared with that “golden age,” are upside down. Instead of halting war, the news media helped lead the charge into battle, stoking jingoism and spreading half-truths in the post-9/11 run-up to the Iraq invasion. Instead of unmasking civilian suffering, the media have kept the thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan war dead off-screen, pandering to the idea that the only victims worth compassion wore U. S. uniforms. Instead of exposing torture, the press accepted the cowardly formulation of “enhanced interrogation” and gave voice to an administration’s apologetics for state cruelty.
To cap it off, even Watergate has been upended, with Bob Woodward, one of the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the scandal, recently the target of scathing revisionism because of a trivial dustup with a thin-skinned White House.
But looming above those breathtaking role reversals is the media’s disgraceful abandonment of the boldest news source of his generation, Pvt. Bradley Manning. Manning is the soldier who in 2010 defied secrecy restrictions to feed the most influential media in the world with leaks they gratefully published, which exposed corruption and duplicity, identified torturers, energized the “Arab Spring,” and embarrassed officialdom worldwide.
Manning’s leaks allegedly were brokered by Wikileaks, the global anti-secrecy organization, in several waves. They began with gunsight footage of the killings of Iraqis and two journalists by a U. S. Army helicopter gunship. Military action reports downloads followed—documents that Manning later testified he had tried to offer to the Washington Post and The New York Times—and the crowning security breach consisted of a huge release of thousands of diplomatic cables originally sent by U. S. State Department officials to their home office.
Manning was arrested in May 2010 and spent nearly a year in what the American Civil Liberties Union called "prolonged isolated confinement and forced idleness." During that time he reportedly spent 23 hours a day in a 6-by-12-foot cell, and was allowed to exercise—shackled—for one hour in another windowless room. He was often stripped and forced to stand naked outside his cell to be inspected, had his sleep interrupted frequently, was periodically deprived of his reading glasses, and generally was subjected to treatment meant to "degrade, humiliate, and traumatize…”.
Why this former intelligence clerk with no terrorist connections or secrets to hide—his metier, after all, was spilling secrets, not hiding them--was treated with a cruelty that no animal shelter would tolerate remains a mystery. Back in 1972, by comparison, Daniel Ellsberg, the former RAND Corporation analyst charged with purloining the Pentagon Papers and giving them to The New York Times, was released on his own recognizance and spent not a day in jail. That, even though the material he leaked discredited a war that was still being avidly pursued by the reigning administration—unlike Manning, who helped undermine a war that the administration that’s jailing him has repudiated.
The ferocity of the Obama administration attack on Manning and on Wikileaks has been withering. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been forced into a kind of imprisonment in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in connection with complaints of sexual misconduct by some Swedish women. Meantime, Wikileaks had its funding channels shut down when U. S. credit card organizations decided, no doubt without prompting, that they could no longer process contributions in good conscience.
Manning, now 25, is about to stand trial before a court martial in Maryland. After a thousand days in lockup, he recently pleaded guilty to charges that could have left him imprisoned for another 20 years. That means the trial could already be over, with Manning facing two decades in prison. That's not enough, apparently. Instead, the government is pushing ahead with a charge of “aiding the enemy,” technically punishable by death, likely (upon conviction) to bring him a minimum of life imprisonment without parole.
According to Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who’s assisting Manning’s defense, this is the first time in 150 years that anybody has been charged with aiding the enemy for leaking information to the press for general publication. Benkler says that makes secrecy breaches—an indispensable routine of journalism in the national security realm—potentially capital offenses if they annoy the wrong people.
The government hasn’t said what harm, if any, Manning’s leaks did to this country. The military court has indicated it doesn’t care, and the media have done astonishingly little to explore the harms and benefits that release of the material he’s charged with leaking might have been responsible for.
Manning’s own explanation of what motivated him to leak the thousands of dispatches and cables is what you’d expect from an idealistic, thinly educated young man, at the time barely into his 20s: "The more I read, the more I was fascinated with the way that we dealt with other nations and organizations. I also began to think the documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity that didn't seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world. . . .The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that should become public.”
The world’s most powerful news media agreed, and turned Manning’s leaks into riveting stories. The Wikileaks material was vetted and worked over, and ultimately used extensively by The Guardian of London, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and Spain’s El Pais. The materials continue to reverberate and, as recently as March 2013, The Guardian and the BBC spent 15-months on developing a sensational story about sectarian death squads in Iraq. It was prompted by reports Manning provided in which shocked U. S. soldiers described seeing Iraqi detainees who’d been tortured by their countrymen.
So if they did right and the world benefited, did Manning do wrong? On what grounds can they say—as former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger have—that they would help defend Wikileaks boss Assange if the U. S. charges him, while they won't lift a finger to protest Manning's incarceration?
One of the paradoxes of the Wikileaks disclosures is that, far from discrediting the United States, much of the material was seized upon abroad for the illumination it provided about foreign regimes, especially in countries where the domestic press was incapable of sharp and disruptive inquiries. Hence, the trusted sources of insight were U. S diplomats, and the cables Manning leaked were embraced, not because they embarrassed the United States but, on the contrary, because in the cables U. S. officials emerged as credible informants. The Wikleaks material—especially the frank comments of U. S. envoys about the foreign thugs and despots with whom they did business—was devoured by reading publics throughout the world, people otherwise stuck with lapdog media who are starved for reliable, insightful observations about their own corrupt leaders.
But still, the U. S. media leave Manning to face his accusers in a barely public tribunal, and even though they were his beneficiaries they can’t, by and large, be bothered to send reporters to cover the trial that will determine his fate. Nor do they do the reporting to ascertain whether his leaks actually harmed national security—in part because they were his conduits, and if any harm was done, they were the instruments of it.
Bradley Manning was a great source. His information was solid and truthful. There was no fabrication, there was no subterfuge. The world’s best news organizations believed the material was of immense public value. So now he goes to jail, perhaps for life, and the media stand in silence? No mainstream news organization, even those that benefited directly from his leaks, has had the effrontery to demand he be freed.
The columnist who looks back from 40 years hence will have to squint hard to find reason to be inspired by the courage of today’s media the way we still are by the media of that long-ago classical age.