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Journalistic Malpractice at the Post and the Times

Thanks to the courageous action of Private Bradley Manning, the young soldier who has been held for over two years by the US military on trumped-up charges including espionage and aiding the enemy, we now have solid evidence that the country’s two leading news organizations, the Washington Post and the New York Times, are not interesting in serious reporting critical of the government.

Manning, in admitting at his military court martial hearing recently that he was in fact the source of hundreds of thousands of damning and embarrassing documents and cables exposing the perfidy and even war crimes of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan which were turned over to Wikileaks, also stated that he had first attempted to provide those documents — which included the secret video of an attack helicopter massacring civilians, including two Reuters journalists, and those who tried to rescue the victims — to the Post and the Times.

Both supposed “news” organizations failed to pursue his offer, and did not run those stories of US criminality until the documents had been released by Wikileaks.

The same two news organizations, not surprisingly, have largely ignored Bradley’s prolonged incarceration in a military brig– incarceration that held him in solitary confinement, often naked, and which a UN human rights investigator called “torture” as well as his pretrial hearing and trial, once that process finally got underway.

Even the New York Times’ own ombudsman was compelled to criticize the paper for its shameless dereliction of journalistic duty in ignoring the persecution of a man whose work the paper sprayed all over its news pages, once it became available through Wikileaks, instead of directly from Manning himself.(And once it became clear that other publications, notably the British Guardian newspaper and the German magazine Der Spiegel, were going to publish his leaks.)

Now as an investigative reporter myself, I know that you get a lot of cranks who call you up and say that they have information about some incredible scandal, and it is tempting in many cases to just go “uh-huh, uh-huh, I’ll look into it,” and then toss the call-back number into the wastebasket. But that is not smart journalism. Most people who are whistleblowers have a hard time giving a nice organized synopsis of what they know, can have an inflated sense of the importance of what they want to tell you, and can even be deliberately exaggerating to get your attention. It’s important when you get a call like that to take the time to ask questions, to check out the person’s credentials, and to follow up enough to establish whether there is truth to what is being said. If there is truth there, then it needs to be pursued.

Manning was not exaggerating, and when he said he had documents, video and other information that exposed war crimes by the US military in Iraq, that should have been more than enough to alert whomever he contacted at the Post and the Times to send someone to meet with him and confirm his identity and the veracity of his claim to have documentary evidence. Neither publication, according to Manning, did this basic due diligence. They just blew him off.

A similar thing occurred back in 2004 when a NASA scientist well known to the science writers and editors at the New York Times contacted the paper saying he had used his skills at analyzing photo images from distant NASA space probes to enhance and analyze photographs of President George Bush’s first presidential debate with Democratic candidate John Kerry. He said his enhancement of screen shots taken from televised video of that debate clearly showed a wire circling Bush under his jacket connected to a box in the area between his shoulder blades. He was, the NASA scientist said, almost certainly wearing a magnetic resonance-based cuing device that was sending information into an earpiece deeply inserted into his ear, enabling him to cheat at the debate!

The Times, in that instance, did assign a reporter, who, I later learned, reported on and wrote a full story about the apparent fraud, including interviewing people who make such cuing devices. The story was edited and was ready to run more than a week ahead of the November election but was then bumped in favor of a story the Times had on how the US military in Iraq had inexplicably turned a blind eye to a large cache of high-density explosives which Iraqi resistance fighters were able to cart away for use in making IEDs and other bombs later. After that piece ran, then executive editor Bill Keller killed the debate cheating story, fearing that it would be “too close to the election” to run as it might “influence the election.” He also apparently didn’t want the Times running two articles critical of the White House in one week — especially during the last week of the campaign. (An account of all this inside thinking at the Times ran in Extra! magazine.)

I was the beneficiary of this censorship by the Times — which never did run the article exposing Bush’s cheating, even after the election was over, and which instead ran cheap-shot articles mocking the idea that Bush had been wearing a cueing device — since after NASA scientist Robert Nelson saw the story killed at the Times, he contacted the Post’s Bob Woodward, who also passed up the story even after having his photo editors examine and vouch for the veracity of the photos, because of the nearness of election day. I ended up getting the story, which I ran in the online edition of Mother Jones magazine, including enhanced photos from all three debates, all displaying the hidden device under Bush’s jacket.

My point here is that the Times in that case at least did the basic job of checking out the story. It still fell on its face and censored it even after having its reporter do a crack job of investigating and writing it up, once again demonstrating a deep-seated editorial fear of challenging the powerful, as did the Post and its investigative editor Woodward, who these days seems more interested in currying favor with powerful conservatives than with exposing true government abuse.

The difference in the Manning case is that here was an enlisted man, with no ax to grind, coming to these publications at incredible personal risk, offering them evidence not of the personal corruption of an individual, but of the criminality of a war. That is a huge story of vast importance to the American people and to the people of the world, and the Times and the Post completely blew it off.

As my bureau chief Frank Crook at the New York office of the Sydney Morning Herald once told me back in 1984, when I informed him that I had learned, only months later, that my wife and I had attended a birthing class program before the birth of our daughter along with Mick Jagger’s then wife Jerry Hall and had failed to recognize who she was , “Ah mate, you ought to turn in your journalist’s license after a stunt like that!” (Mick hadn’t gone to classes with Jerry, leaving that job to her sister instead, which was my excuse for not recognizing her. Mick I would have spotted.)

While I don’t think my lack of awareness was grounds for quitting the journalism profession (I wouldn’t have violated her privacy and written a story about Jerry’s pregnancy anyhow!), I would have to say that after failing to pursue Manning’s offer of documentation about US war crimes, and then after failing to adequately cover his horrific ongoing persecution by the Obama administration and the Pentagon, the Times and the Post should just hang it up and admit that they are not news organizations, but are just propaganda agencies.

Dave Lindorff is a  founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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