"With a Royal Baby Due, News Outlets Are on High Alert" reported the New York Times (7/14/13) in a piece detailing the extensive planning that TV networks have done in order to cover the any-day-now arrival of the child of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
The Times said it "will be a spectacle unlike any other in the modern media age"; the ABC website has a special section ("sponsored by Nestlé"), while "NBC News has a site called RoyalBabyGuess.com, asking for predictions about name, birth time and weight. To make it more fun, the people whose guesses come closest might be mentioned on the Today show." Both networks are sending anchors to cover the big event.
You can compare this treatment to an array of other, legitimately more important events in the world, of course. It's not hard to come up with a list of things that are of greater consequence.
How about the trial of Bradley Manning? It only requires a trip to a military courtroom in Ft. Meade, Maryland. No corporations are likely to sponsor the Official Bradley Manning Trial website, but it's impossible to argue that Manning isn't news.
But network TV news has made that decision already.
As I noted before (FAIR Blog, 6/4/13) the evening newscasts briefly mentioned the start of the trial– with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams calling it the "court martial of the man who may have put U.S. military secrets in the hands of Osama bin Laden."
Inflammatory, sure– and also apparently the last time the trial was mentioned on NBC Nightly News. A similar brief summary aired on NBC's Today.
The other networks were hardly any better. On ABC's Good Morning America (6/4/13), viewers were told that Manning was an "Army private charged with the biggest leak of classified information in US history." But apparently the biggest leak ever wasn't big enough to merit much additional coverage; the only other mention of the trial on ABC came because WikiLeaks' Julian Assange brought it up during an interview on the Sunday show This Week (6/30/13).
CBS Evening News briefly mentioned the Manning trial on June 3, but has never talked about it since then. The day before the CBS show Sunday Morning reported (6/2/13) this:
There is a look at the week ahead on our Sunday Morning calendar. Monday, the court-martial begins on remaining charges against Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, accused of passing government secrets to the WikiLeaks website. On Tuesday, Doctor Ruth Westheimer celebrates her eighty-fifth birthday. After fleeing Nazi Germany in her youth, Westheimer found success as a media sex expert.
Judging by the word count, the trial is slightly less important than Dr. Ruth's birthday.
CBS This Morning had an interview with WikiLeaks' Assange on June 7– which including this question from host Charlie Rose:
You know, let's talk about the Bradley Manning case because everyday all of us who are in journalism believe that it's the responsibility for the journalist to hold government accountable and that is the responsibility. But also there is a sense that you do not do things that threaten national security and endanger the lives of innocent Americans. That doesn't seem to be a concern for you and Mister Manning.
Assange called that charge "completely false," pointing out that U.S. government is not even making the case that individuals were harmed by the disclosures.
So that is the state of network television coverage of a whistleblower, held without trial for 3 years, who revealed information that made headlines in the most powerful news outlets around the world for months. That is how U.S. television networks are covering a trial where the U.S. government is attempting to argue that publishing information that finds its way into the hands of U.S. enemies is in fact "aiding the enemy"– a stunning legal strategy that holds the potential to criminalize investigative journalism.
No, all of that is apparently just barely newsworthy. But a baby born to the British royal family is news– and has already been the subject of more substantive network TV coverage (NBC Nightly News, 7/14/13).
And the same could be said for a cheesy, little-watched TV movie Sharknado, which was the subject of an NBC Nightly News report on July 12. Or the NBC reports about a new flavor of Hamburger Helper or a new hardwood floor cleaning tool.
Kevin Gosztola, one of the independent journalists covering the Manning trial, recently told Democracy Now! (7/16/13) that the trial "really is only being covered when the outlets in the U.S. media feel they have an obligation to cover something."
Which, for the major TV networks, would seem to be basically never.