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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: More on Pfc. Manning and WikiLeaks

Frontline, PBS's flagship investigative series, aired a one-hour program on Tuesday evening, May 24, called "WikiSecrets."

It focused on what Frontline has properly described as "the biggest intelligence breach in U.S. history — the leaking of more than a half-million classified documents on the WikiLeaks website throughout 2010," and on the two men at the center of the still-simmering legal and moral controversy surrounding the leaks: Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, charged with handing over those documents when he was serving as an intelligence analyst, and Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks.

The program had been heavily promoted in advance by PBS and Frontline as an exclusive, inside look at the people and circumstances behind this extraordinary dump of classified material that has turned the old world of public information, secrecy and diplomacy on its head. I wrote about this before when Frontline, in March, showed shorter segments of its reporting on its own program and also on the PBS NewsHour as a lead-up to Tuesday's fuller investigation.

So I expected a lot of mail from viewers. But only a handful of letters arrived. They were all critical and are printed below. This may be a good thing for Frontline if it suggests that most viewers found the program to be in keeping with Frontline's reputation for fair yet tough reporting. There is actually a much larger debate, still mostly critical but with more balance and opposing views, that appears on the Frontline site that I recommend.

There were, as far as I can tell, relatively few of the traditional newspaper reviews of this program. But the intensity of the debate over WikiLeaks is being carried on in blogs and online features where it has, as John Hudson points out on The Atlantic Wire, "divided reviewers, with those sympathetic to WikiLeaks labeling the film a hatchet job and others celebrating it for its depth."

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

My Thoughts

I come out, on balance, applauding Frontline for its efforts. The whole WikiLeaks saga is one of great importance but it is very complicated.

It is not a story made for television. Virtually all of the substantive and contextual reporting about the content and impact of the classified cables from Afghanistan and Iraq and the diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the world has been done by newspapers, magazines and wire services. But most Americans get their news from television so I, as a viewer, felt Frontline provided a service in pulling together in a powerful way those elements — mostly involving the key personalities — that could be presented effectively on screen in an uninterrupted hour.

The WikiLeaks/Manning/Assange saga is also a moving target, meaning that Manning is charged and in prison but has not yet had his first pre-trial hearing and has not been convicted of anything. Assange lives, under watch by British police, at a supporter's home outside of London and is the object of a grand jury investigation in the U.S. This is also a challenge for investigations on television, since events can change quickly. But it seemed worth taking on this challenge.

Some critics believe that the program didn't really present any new information. There may be something to that criticism for those that have followed the leak and its aftermath very intensely. But here, too, there is value in pulling together what is known with new interviews for the general public. For many viewers, including me and some of those responding on the Frontline website, the program did present material that was new to us and faces that were new to us.

I have followed the WikiLeaks story fairly closely and, like others, I have some questions. Was there any attempt to get Army officials on camera to explain the lack of security? Why wasn't more said about the solitary confinement conditions under which Manning was held for nine months at a Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Va.? And how could the program interview former State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley without reminding viewers that Crowley was forced to resign because he said the Pentagon's handling of Manning's confinement was "ridiculous, counter-productive and stupid."

There are other things that one could challenge. But I think it is necessary to keep in mind that this is a huge subject and Frontline has 54 minutes. On balance, I thought the questioning by correspondent and co-producer Martin Smith was tough but proper. I thought that even though only a small amount of a lengthy interview with Assange was used (it's all available online), that he was able to defend himself and his operation and that the viewer clearly understood that this was an intelligent, articulate and committed person with a vision that demanded you pay attention.

Here Are the Letters

I found the "Frontline" program on WikiLeaks, Assange and Bradley Manning, to be cheap and disgusting. Nothing more than subtle character assassinations. Shame on PBS. The moniker, Pentagon Broadcasting Service oftentimes rings astonishingly true.

William Shields, Portland, OR

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As a supporter of public TV and big fan of Frontline, I was disturbed by Martin Smith's judgmental attitude against Bradley Manning during last night's Frontline broadcast about WikiLeaks. Expecting an even-handed treatment, I was surprised that Smith took the US government line against Manning, Assange and the rest of the WikiLeaks staff. Rather than assessing the value of the documents exposed by WikiLeaks, Smith focused on Manning's homosexuality, youthful age, emotional problems, and enemies. If that's the kind of anti-free press propaganda that PBS is going to embrace from now on, I'll have to give up on it. I can get plenty of establishment "news" from the mainstream media, and don't want to see it on PBS. Please make amends. If Martin Smith is not up to it, send in Lowell Bergman, who is much fairer. Thank you.

Sherrill Futrell, Davis, CA

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I saw your program on WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning. I just do not believe that enough information about WikiLeaks was given for as much as they have done.

Steve Zimmett, St. Marys, PA

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For many years I have looked to Frontline to provide good information on many topics about which I know little. Unfortunately, I have followed the WikiLeaks/Assange/Manning very closely from the beginning, and after watching tonight's smear job on Manning, I will never trust Frontline again. The most glaring omission is the failure to report all of the inhumane treatment to which Manning has been subjected in prison, information easily available all over the web, but most usefully (and best documented) in the work of Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald and others have also pointed out that Lamo and Wired have made a number of allegations about the Lamo/Bradley chats but refused to release the chat logs that would prove those allegations, if indeed such logs exist. Greenwald has also been quite eloquent on the aforementioned torture of Manning. Instead of this, Frontline used the time to dwell on his irrelevant sexual orientation and allegations about his mental state, none of them from disinterested observers. I could go on, but it's not worth the time, given PBS's general adherence to the "mainstream" media's orientation. No point spending the night trying to talk to people who don't really care what you think. I am thankful for one thing: a retired professor, I have very little money, and now I can refuse to contribute to PBS or my local station without feeling guilty.

Joel Roache, Salisbury, MD

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PBS has definitely lost any credibility with me or my husband. We're long time supporters of public TV but we're taking our business elsewhere after watching about 15 minutes of your slanted coverage on Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. If we want propaganda shoved into our faces, and see people convicted before trial, we can get that on any mainstream media in the U.S. Had thought PBS would be fair; my mistake.

Muskogee, OK

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