Bradley Manning, the former U.S. army private who is being tried by a military court for leaking classified documents after spending almost three years in jail, admitted on Thursday that he gave information — including a video of an attack by U.S. forces on civilians in Iraq — to WikiLeaks. But Manning also provided some details about his leaking of documents that reinforce why having an independent quasi-media entity like WikiLeaks is important: he says he tried to provide the same information to traditional news outlets, including both the New York Times and the Washington Post, but was ignored.
This information came out during a statement that Manning read aloud in court, so most of the details couldn’t be immediately verified, but the former military intelligence agent said that he called the New York Times to offer them a story based on the documents he had, but his voicemail message was never returned. Manning said that he also spoke to someone at the Washington Post and described what he had, but no one ever followed up.
According to some reports, Manning’s call went to the public editor’s voice mail at the Times, which could explain why no one in the newsroom contacted him — as anyone who has ever worked in a large newsroom knows, crank calls and vaguely conspiratorial reports from would-be tipsters come with the territory, and many don’t result in any action. The part of his story about speaking with someone at the Washington Post directly would seem a little more damning, but he apparently didn’t provide many details to the reporter he spoke to.
Even with all of those caveats, the incident still brings home how valuable it is to have something like WikiLeaks, an entity that Jay Rosen has called “the world’s first stateless news organization.” It’s not that the New York Times or the Washington Post failed to do their jobs as media outlets or journalistic investigators — it’s simply that there was an alternative available where Manning could take the documents that would ensure that they saw the light of day. In the pre-WikiLeaks days, he might never have found a way of publicizing them at all.
As Jeff Jarvis noted on Twitter, Manning’s confession brings up an even more interesting question, namely: What would have happened if he had gotten through to someone at the Times and they wrote a story, without WikiLeaks ever being involved? Manning might still be on trial for his behavior, but it’s unlikely there would have been the same kind of U.S. government attack on the media entity that published the documents, since the Times is seen as protected in a way that WikiLeaks is not — although it arguably should be.
Post and thumbnail image courtesy of Shutterstock / Rob Kints