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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Covering Private Manning

* This mailbag was amended shortly after being posted to record an objection by Frontline to a characterization I used.

Maybe the Obama administration at least ought to count to 10 before pushing some high-profile people out the door.

I say this because on Tuesday, the Associated Press broke the story that Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, the 23-year-old intelligence analyst who is the one and only suspect accused of providing a half-million or so classified documents to the operators of the WikiLeaks website, will be moved from his 23-hour a day solitary confinement cell at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., to a new and less restrictive "pre-trial" facility at the Army's Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

The reported conditions under which Manning was being held at Quantico for the past nine months had attracted considerable criticism and controversy from several organizations here and abroad, and last month the State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, was forced to resign after commenting to a university gathering that the Pentagon's handling of Manning's confinement was "ridiculous, counter-productive and stupid."

The day before the story about Manning being moved surfaced, the New York Times broke the story that an investigation by the Defense Department's Inspector General cleared the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, of any wrongdoing in connection with a damaging portrait of the general and his staff that appeared in the magazine Rolling Stone last June. McChrystal was called home by the president when the article appeared and he announced his retirement immediately after that.

Not Enough Coverage of Manning

Whatever one thinks of these two people and their actions, a four-star general and a private first class have had lots of unwanted press coverage in recent months.

But the circumstances surrounding Manning's motives and confinement — as opposed to his alleged role as the world's foremost leaker — have actually not received a great deal of coverage, especially on American television, and that's what brings me to PBS.

A fair amount of the mail that has come to me in recent weeks is from viewers who don't see Manning as a villain and who are critical of segments about Manning that have appeared on the PBS NewsHour and later on Frontline in March.

This is a little complicated and requires a scorecard. On May 24, Frontline, PBS's flagship investigative and documentary series, will air a major program on Manning and WikiLeaks. But parts of the broad reporting effort that went into that forthcoming documentary have been dribbled out by PBS in advance as sort of previews for the longer report to come in May.

So on March 10, the PBS NewsHour devoted a segment of its nightly program to an exclusive interview with Manning's father by Frontline correspondent Martin Smith. Then on March 29, Frontline broadcast a slightly longer segment that featured a broader look into Manning's background. That program attracted most of the letters that are printed below.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

My Thoughts

First, some of the e-mails I received raise legitimate questions about the relevancy of Manning's personal background to questions surrounding his alleged actions. But I'm quite willing to wait until May 24 to see how Frontline weaves all of its material on Manning and WikiLeaks together before judging the relevancy of any aspect of his behavior.

Second, I am grateful for Frontline for investing in a program that explores, in-depth, this most extraordinary new development — the emergence of WikiLeaks — in the new world of anything-goes media, and Pfc. Manning's role in that process.

PBS, in general, has not done a great deal on this story. There has been some earlier material on the NewsHour but nothing really probing. The resignation of Crowley, which struck me as quite important at the time not just because of who he was but because of what he said, got only a line or two in the March 14 news summary. Even when the first WikiLeaks releases appeared back in April 2010, revealing dramatic film of a U.S. attack helicopter firing on Iraqis in Baghdad, the NewsHour did not show it. The Need to Know public affairs program also hasn't done much, if anything, on the situation surrounding Manning.

Getting at Manning's motivations, of course, has been difficult because there has been no direct access to him. But there is what strikes me as a big story to be investigated and reported about how this young soldier was put in a position by the Army where he had extraordinary access to hundreds of thousands of classified documents and could move them so easily out of government control. What one wonders in these first glimpses of the Frontline reporting is why Manning, despite some computer skills, would be someone's first choice for such an assignment. Whatever one thinks about the pros and cons of the leaking of the information, the question of whom in the Army is responsible for his assignment and for the lack of security surrounding his work seems to be crucial. I hope Frontline sheds some light on this.

Some of the emails from viewers are posted below. All of them were sent to me before the decision this week to move Manning from a Marine brig at Quantico to an Army facility at Fort Leavenworth. Some of the emails are about the March 29 Frontline broadcast and others were in response to the earlier, March 10, segment on the NewsHour.

I also sent some of these emails to Frontline, and the responses from Frontline Senior Editor Ken Dornstein are also posted along with the letters.

Here Are the Letters

I was quite disturbed at what I considered the smear job done on Bradley Manning in a segment aired by Frontline on March 29. Normally, Frontline is one of the few enlightened and progressive shows that can be found on television anywhere. Not the case in this segment. The program highlighted Manning's difficult home life and instability prior to joining the service, primarily through an interview with Manning's father. The normally unbiased interviewer attempted to put words in Mr. Manning's mouth to paint the worst possible picture of the son.

The show replayed an 911 phone call from Manning's stepmother to the police in which she said she was calling for help because Manning had thrown his father on the ground. I wonder how any of this is relevant to the case of Bradley Manning. Of course, Manning, held without charges for months in Quantico prison under inhumane conditions that are considered torture in many countries, could not be interviewed to hear his side. Nor did the program even mention these inhumane conditions nor that they have been condoned by President Obama. The show also irrelevantly highlighted Manning's sexual preference.

Apparently this segment was only a prelude to an hour-long Frontline episode on Manning that is being created to air in May. I hope you will convey my objections to the tactics and content being used to Frontline's producers and the powers that be at PBS. Manning is a hero who objected to the atrocities that have been perpetrated on Afghani civilians by our Armed Forces and believes that our government and its actions should be transparent — something that our President once proclaimed he believed in back in the day when he was trying to win election.

Althea Schoen

(Ombudsman's Note: The stepmother on the 911 call does not say that Manning had thrown his father to the ground. She says: "His father has just had surgery and he is down on the floor . . . ")

Here Is Frontline's Response

As you [Althea Schoen] note, the March 29th story is part of a fuller hour on Manning and Wikileaks that we will broadcast on May 24th. Our reporting is ongoing, so it's premature for us to discuss it in more detail, but we trust the full film will answer many of your questions.

You also may not be aware that, two weeks prior to our March broadcast, we aired additional material from our interview with Bradley Manning's father, Brian, on the PBS NewsHour. Among other things, this piece dealt with the current conditions under which Manning is being held in Quantico Virginia, a point you found lacking in our March 29th broadcast.

This said, we want to make clear that the piece we aired in March was sound on its own terms. The 911 call is a critical part of a portrait of the young life of Bradley Manning, and suggests some of the complicated reasons why he may have left home when he did. It's an important corrective to many news accounts suggesting that Manning was kicked out of the house simply because he was gay.

Manning's sexual identity is relevant then, as well, not only as part of Manning's difficult coming of age, but also as predicate to the struggles he would experience in the Army under "Don't Ask/Don't Tell." These struggles would lead to a number of disciplinary actions that could have impacted Manning's top security clearance around the time of the alleged leaks.

On the question of our correspondent Martin Smith "putting words in the mouth" of Manning's father: In our communications with him, Brian Manning has been clear that we fairly reflected his views. You're right that we did not take the position that Bradley Manning is a hero. We also did not set out to do a smear job on him. Rather, we set out to do what FRONTLINE always does: Report what we know, and do so in as fair and accurate way as possible.

More Letters

I am writing in regards to your recent program, The Private Life of Bradley Manning. I found this truncated piece of "journalism" to be not only offensive but utterly uninformative. You take a brave soldier who has heroically risked his life so that the American people might know the truth and that others might not die secretly and unjustly, and you have portrayed him as an unstable little queer boy with a penchant for violent outbursts. Over 50% of all American children are emotionally traumatized by divorce. That is neither news nor is it relevant. And how is his sexual orientation an issue? Would you dare to discuss a straight person's sexuality? Bradley Manning is a hero who has risked his life to speak truth to power. He needs all the support he can get from the public. Your piece is divisive and irresponsible. It detracts from and dilutes the serious implications that his case has for the rights and freedoms of all Americans. His current "Private Life" of solitary confinement and alleged torture is what I was interested in and what truly needs attention and exposure, not this nonsense.

Rachael Hawkins, Los Angeles, CA

~ ~ ~

"Frontline's" Bradley Manning segment was a total breach of journalistic ethics. The program should have been titled "Who's Afraid of Bradley Manning?" and the answer to that is "Frontline." In the very same program, "Frontline" extolls Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for conduct that is not one bit different in motivation from that of Manning.

Why IS "Frontline" afraid of Bradley Manning? Is it to curry favor with governmental and political news sources? I never dreamed I would be this disgusted with such a formerly reputable journalistic entity as "Frontline". This horribly slanted hit-piece should be rectified.

Gary Myrick, Fort Worth, TX

~ ~ ~

Last night I saw public tv display a propaganda showing of Bradley Manning, one very rare hero who has stood up against military mass murder. Everybody has something in his background which can be blown up into something which seems worse. That public tv doesn't continue to bring this story of mass murder and it's cover-up to public awareness is a real display of the evil that it serves.

Dale Snoddy, Baltimore, MD

~ ~ ~

When you choose not to cover a subject, it could show bias. Silence is permission. You must cover the Bradley Manning issue. Manning is an Army Pvt being held in the Quantico MCB brig awaiting trial. Why is he not in an Army brig? Because Army training makes them all family and they would not mistreat one of their own this way. We would not stand for this kind of treatment if a foreign military treated our POW's this way! Furthermore, international law makes it proper for other countries to treat our POW's in the same way we treat our own detainees. He is being sleep deprived and stripped of his clothes at night. This is cruel and inhumane and NOT according to regulation as President Obama parroted [Defense Secretary] Robert Gates. The purpose of the torture is to reduce Manning's ability to testify in his own behalf at trial in May. He has been in solitary confinement for 9 months. The people must know about this. Need to Know and the NewsHour should cover this vital issue/story.

Colfax, CA

About the March 10 Segment and a Frontline Response

On Thursday [March 10] while watching the NewsHour, there was a disturbing interview with the father of Pfc. Bradley Manning. The interviewer began a line of questioning about the emotion [or lack thereof] shown by Manning's father. The questioning was intrusive and persistent. It actually moved me to turn off the TV. This clip, I learned later, was part of a Frontline story that PBS was later running. The next day I happened to mention this in a group of five friends — two others had seen the program. They had reacted as strongly as I did. I have never written to complain about story coverage before. But I want to register deep disturbance at the content and style of the interview I saw. It did not meet the high standards I have come to expect from the NewsHour.

Healdsburg, CA

Here's Ken Dornstein's response to the above letter:

I received a copy of your recent note to the PBS Ombudsman's office about Martin Smith's interview with Brian Manning on The PBS NewsHour. Your reaction to the tone of the interview may have something to do with the different expectations that audiences may bring to FRONTLINE, who produced the interview, and the NewsHour, who aired it. In any event, I passed along your comments to the producers of the program, and they wanted me to forward you this reply:

"We appreciate your concern, but assure you that we had no intention of offending anyone. You should know that Martin Smith interviewed Brian Manning for over seven hours. In that time, Mr. Smith asked a wide range of questions, and his tone was persistent, but consistently respectful. We aired a small portion of the exchange on the NewsHour in order to allow Mr. Manning to voice his concerns over his son's incarceration.

"After that interview aired on the NewsHour, we were in communication with Mr. Manning. He expressed no discomfort on the exchange as it aired. In fact it was the opposite. Mr. Manning told us that he felt the exchange accurately represented the conversation that took place between him and Mr. Smith.

"On March 29th we will be broadcasting a 10 minute portrait of Bradley Manning and much more of Mr. Manning's interview will be used. Then on May 24th, there will be a full hour on the subject. Perhaps a longer piece will shift perceptions and place the exchange in further context."

* An Objection from Frontline

After this mailbag was posted, Frontline's Dornstein wrote to take issue with my characterization that "parts of the broad reporting effort that went into that forthcoming documentary have been dribbled out by PBS in advance as sort of previews for the longer report to come in May."

Dornstein writes:

"No 'dribbling' out of material here: We had an exclusive interview with Brian Manning on a newsworthy topic (the conditions of his son's detention at Quantico), and we were not scheduled to air the full film for months. We made a strategic decision to partner with the NewsHour to air the newsworthy aspects of our interview while the story was current. This helped us maintain our exclusivity, and also helped strengthen ties with one of our important public media partners.

"In the case of the segment on Manning that we aired a few weeks later: This is part of another strategic initiative, our new magazine-formatted programs, that allow us to air newsmaker interviews like this at greater length than we are likely able to do in the full hour, and in more timely fashion.

"Equally important to note: These are never 'PBS' decisions. David Fanning and Raney Aronson, our Executive Producer and Series Senior Producer, decide what to air, based on what best serves the journalism and the series."