In media mythology, the years from the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s were the classical age, a heroic time of moral clarity.
Mainstream journalism marinated in adversarialism. Little Southern newspapers infuriated their own readers by staring down segregation. Foreign correspondents forced upon an unwilling public the realities of a brutal war. Network news ignored official disdain and showed the bottomless suffering the war inflicted on the innocents it was supposed to save. With the Pentagon Papers, newspapers defied secrecy rules to expose government lies. With Watergate, reporters forced out a corrupt president.
True, that retelling is a bit of myth-spinning; the media never were quite that gutsy. But myths illuminate. They remind us of values and aspirations. What we'd like to think was true then reflects what we hope might still be true now.
And over the past decade or so, it's as if that classical formula of defiance and struggle has been turned upside down. Instead of halting war, the news media helped lead the charge into battle, stoking jingoism and spreading half-truths. Instead of unmasking civilian suffering, the media have kept the thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan war dead off-screen, pandering to the idea that the only victims worth compassion wear U.S. uniforms.
Even Watergate is upended, with Bob Woodward, one of the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the scandal, now the target of scathing revisionism because of a trivial dustup with a thin-skinned White House.
And looming above those breathtaking role reversals is the media's disgraceful abandonment of the boldest news source of his generation, Pvt. Bradley Manning, a soldier who in 2010 defied secrecy restrictions to feed the most influential media in the world with leaks they gratefully published, which exposed corruption and duplicity, identified torturers, energized the Arab spring, and embarrassed officialdom worldwide.
The ferocity of the Obama administration attack on Manning and on Wikileaks, the online anti-secrecy organization that brokered his leaks to the media, has been withering. Manning spent the better part of a year in solitary confinement, undergoing maltreatment plainly intended to get him to finger Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as not just a conduit, but a co-conspirator.
Manning, now 25, is before a court martial in Maryland. After 1,000 days behind bars, he recently pleaded guilty to charges that could leave him there for another 20 years.
So the trial could end now, with Manning facing two decades in prison. Instead, the government is pushing ahead with a charge of "aiding the enemy," technically punishable by death, likely to bring him life without parole.
According to Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who's assisting his defense, this is the first time in 150 years that anybody has been charged with aiding the enemy for leaking information to the press for general publication. Benkler says that makes secrecy breaches -- an indispensable routine of journalism in the national security realm -- a capital offense, if they annoy the wrong people.
The government hasn't said what harm, if any, Manning's leaks did to this country. The military court has indicated it doesn't care.
Manning's own explanation of what motivated him to leak the thousands of dispatches and cables is what you'd expect from an idealistic, thinly educated young man, at the time barely into his 20s:
The more I read, the more I was fascinated with the way that we dealt with other nations and organizations. I also began to think the documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity that didn't seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world. ... The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that should become public.
The world's most powerful news media agreed, and turned Manning's leaks into riveting stories. (Just this month the Guardian and the BBC broke a sensational story based on a 15-month investigation into sectarian death squads in Iraq; it was prompted by reports he provided in which shocked U.S. soldiers described seeing Iraqi detainees who'd been tortured by their countrymen.)
But still, the media leave Manning to face his accusers in a tribunal that is barely public, and by and large the media that were his beneficiaries can't be bothered to staff the trial that will determine his fate.
He was a great source. His information was solid. The world's best news organizations believed it was of immense public value. So now he goes to jail, perhaps for life, and the media stand in silence?
The columnist who looks back from 40 years hence will have to squint hard to find reason to be inspired by the courage of today's media the way we still are by the media of that long-ago classical age.