The New York Times took a few lumps yesterday from its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who seconded the protests of “many readers” who wrote to her complaining that the Times was not paying sufficient attention to the pretrial testimony of Private Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, Md. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and is accused of the wholesale leaking of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. The New Republic has also taken the newspaper to task for its non-coverage of the hearings, during which Manning described inhuman treatment by his captors.
The Times has not subjected Manning to a news blackout, Sullivan acknowledges, writing that the paper ran an Associated Press story about the proceedings last week and repeating Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt’s pretty good excuses that 1) the paper does not ordinarily cover every proceeding in every newsworthy case and 2) the paper previously covered (in 2011!) the charges of Manning’s mistreatment.
Sullivan is not persuaded. She quotes at length from a comment by Times reader David Morf, who states that the Times “is the paper of record” and the place where the Pentagon Papers were published. “It’s unconscionable and sad if the Times sits quietly by saying nothing — even worse, simply running AP wire copy to let the story bury itself,” he writes. Sullivan nods in approval, concluding that the Manning hearings’ news value dictates that the “Times should be there.”
What the Times should and what the Times should not cover is a parlor game that even Times non-readers can play with every day’s edition. The likelihood is that no two players will ever find themselves in complete agreement about what to cover and in what precise depth. That is not a reason not to play the “should-shouldn’t” game but an indicator that the Manning complaint that Sullivan and her correspondents share is a tad arbitrary.
Even if the Times is the be-all and end-all of journalism (something I doubt), it does not mean that if the Times is not reporting a story the story is not getting reported. Frustrated Times readers seeking play-by-play coverage of the Manning hearings can take their interest elsewhere. Besides the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Reuters, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, CNN, the Washington Post, the Tribune Washington bureau, the BBC, NBC, ABC, PBS and other outlets have been on the story.