How we crowd-sourced transcripts of the entire Manning court martial

Rainey Reitman

Board Member, Freedom of the Press Foundation

On May 9, 2013, we made a bold claim on this website. We promised to crowd-fund enough money to hire independent court reporters to provide transcripts of the entire Manning court martial. 

We knew that it was vital that the public have a virtual seat in Chelsea Manning’s trial1.  A public record of the court proceedings could fuel better, more accurate, and more frequent news coverage of the trial and could hold the government to account for its actions during the court martial. The government had forbidden tape recorders or cameras from entering the courtroom, so the only way to get an accurate accounting of the proceedings was sending in someone to take notes by hand.

Paying professional court reporters to transcribe the proceedings seemed like the perfect solution – if it was possible.

We knew it would be hard, but had no idea how hard. At every turn, we faced new obstacles to getting transcripts of the trial. So, finally, here’s the story of what we faced – and all the people who helped us surmount those obstacles.

Where do you even find a court reporter?

The very first problem we faced was finding a court reporter that would work with us. We knew we needed a reputable court reporter/stenographer that could do real-time transcripts and would be familiar with military jargon. But many court reporters rely on military court systems for their livelihood and didn’t want to jeopardize those relationships. In addition, we were asking for an incredibly quick turnaround time in conditions that didn’t allow the court reporters a recorded backup, or the ability to ask for any court participants to slow down or repeat their statements, like most court reporters can. Given the long court hours, this puts a toll on any court reporter, no matter how good.

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We were incredibly thankful when court reporter Tony Rolland (pictured right) approached us and recommended Gore Brothers. They are a professional court reporting firm that serves the larger DC/Baltimore metropolitan area. While other court reporters turned down our business, Gore Brothers understood how important it was to have accurate, timely records available to the public for one of the most important trials in our lifetime. Even though it was a politically contentious issue, Gore Brothers took us on and agreed to send in court reporters.

Working with Gore, we realized that one court reporter wasn’t going to be nearly enough. Instead, Gore brought together a team of 6 court reporters so that there would be continual coverage throughout the many weeks of the trial. 

We know that journalists need transcripts quickly in order to write stories about the trial, and so we prioritized speed in getting these transcripts made. That meant two court reporters every day: one covering the morning and one covering the afternoon. By having court reporters only covering half days, we could ensure that we got transcripts edited and live on the website faster – morning sessions would go live at 7 PM in the evening, afternoon sessions would be published early the following morning.

Wait, it costs how much?

The second barrier was funding. We knew that professional court reporters were expensive, but we underestimated how expensive. We originally believed we needed to raise $40,000-$50,000 to cover the entire trial.  But it quickly became apparent that we needed to raise twice that much.

What made this possible? Amazingly, it was individual donors. Over one thousand six hundred people chipped in $10, $20, and $50 because they believed that the Manning trial should be public for the whole world. The average donation was under $100.

We made the platform, but ultimately it was the generosity and faith of individuals making small contributions that made the transcripts possible.

Taking on the U.S. government

Money and a team of top-notch court reporters weren’t the only thing we needed to cover the Manning court martial. We also had to get into the courtroom, and the government made it very difficult for us and many other media organizations to access the trial.

We knew there were strict regulations preventing any electronic equipment in the courtroom, but the media center allowed journalists to bring in laptops as long as they didn’t record or connect to the Internet during the proceedings. 

We knew we were far more likely to be allowed to bring stenography equipment into the media center than into the courtroom, so we teamed up with the Verge, the Guardian, and Forbes. Each organization requested a press pass for their reporter and a second press pass for a court reporter to accompany their reporter. 

Unfortuantely, each was issued only one press pass, meaning there wasn’t an extra space for our court reporter.

And we weren’t the only ones shut out. Of the 350 media applications the government received, only 70 were granted.

We weren’t ready to give up. With the help of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, we organized a coalition of twenty major media organizations – including the Los Angeles Times, NPR, Fox News, and the New Yorker – and sent a letter to the Army requesting two additional press passes.

We also tried to find someone to lend us a press pass.  We reached out to individual media organizations and also tweeted in hopes that someone would lend us one, with no luck.

I flew out to Fort Meade the weekend before the court martial was scheduled to begin and began approaching journalists who had been granted press passes. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them refused to lend Freedom of the Press Foundation a pass.  Many wanted to help, but they didn’t want to give up their press passes for the first day of a historic trial.

Finally, the night before the trial began, we managed to get one press pass for the first day. Nathan Fuller, a blogger for the Private Manning Support Network2, temporarily loaned us his pass. We are deeply indebted to Nathan for giving up his seat in the media center that day. It’s the only reason we managed to get a transcript of the first day.

After the first few days, the crowd in the media center thinned. We were able to use donated press passes from ARD German Radio, the Verge and Forbes. 

During the trial

When court reporters work, they use a computerized stenotype machine to make a quick transcript. They sit close to the judge so that they can hear everything, and have the ability to interrupt proceedings or ask for clarifications in order to get an accurate transcription.  Above all, court reporters make a recording of everything, and double-check their transcripts against the audio recording.

Our court reporters were denied all of these things. They were in a room with the rest of the media, watching a live video feed of the court proceedings. The audio was muffled and difficult to understand at times, and there was no way to interrupt proceedings when things were hard to understand.

Worst of all, they were forbidden recording devices – so there was no way to double-check the accuracy of their notes. Instead, our court reporters simply had to transcribe as quickly as possible, often without breaks for long stretches of time, and try to get every word down accurately.

We also had trouble switching out court reporters midday. The strict rules meant that everyone who wanted in the media center had to be on base by 8 AM. This meant that both of our court reporters had to be on base at 8 AM, even though one didn’t start working until after lunch.  It was not until the defense brought this issue to the judge was our court reporter allowed to show up half way through the day.

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On more than one occasion, we ran into technical difficulties. Once we even lost a large section of the transcription.  Journalist Alexa O’Brien (pictured left) –whose own meticulous hand-typed transcripts of the trial have been an invaluable service to the public–generously offered to lend us her transcript from that day, for which we are deeply grateful. Her attention to detail is one of the many reasons we awarded Alexa a grant before the trial began.

After the trial

In all, we raised over $100,000 – all from individual contributions.

After fees taken out by credit card processors and our fiscal sponsor, that was about $5,000 more than the total needed to pay for the court reporters.

When we originally announced this campaign, we promised to donate any extra funds to the Manning Support Network. The Support Network has decided to apply half of that money to Chelsea Manning’s legal fees during her appeal and has generously offered to donate the other half back to the Freedom of the Press Foundation so we can continue our work.

You’ve probably noticed that there were a lot of people who went out on a limb to help us – folks like Tony Rolland, Gore Brothers, Nathan Fuller, Alexa O’Brien, Forbes, the Verge, the Guardian, ARD German Radio, the twenty media organizations that signed onto a coalition letter in support of our endeavor, and the hundreds upon hundreds of people who donated to ensure we could cover the costs of the court reporters. It is their generosity and their courage that was responsible for the Manning transcripts being freely available to the public today.

  • 1. Shortly after the trial concluded, Chelsea Manning publicly acknowledge that she identifies as a woman and prefers the name “Chelsea” to “Bradley.” We respect this decision and will use it going forward when possible. However, in the transcripts her name is still written as “Bradley” for historical accuracy.
  • 2. Disclosure: I am a steering committee member of the Private Manning Support Network, and also a proud co-founder.

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