The Manafort trial coverage: Don’t think of a Russian elephant

The news media has perhaps the biggest influence in the court of public opinion, especially when it comes to politicized issues. The information it publishes, which is often distorted, shapes how we view people and events. It seems the principles on which the justice system runs don’t apply to the media. News outlets sometimes do the opposite.

Paul Manafort’s current trial has little to do with the Russia investigation, and the parties involved reportedly decided to keep the two issues separate to avoid prejudicing the jury. News outlets did mention this in their coverage, but their articles did the complete opposite: they focused mostly on Russia.

Consider the start of the New York Times’ article:

When they present their evidence in the financial fraud trial of Paul Manafort beginning this week, federal prosecutors have promised the judge, no government witness will even utter the word Russia.

Russia inevitably looms over the entire proceeding anyway.

… [The trial] will not be about collusion or Russian disinformation, even if a stray reference to the country inevitably creeps in.

So if it’s not about Russia, why the emphasis on it in the coverage? Possibly because it’s more sensational than the actual proceedings — although the outlets also sensationalized those, such as Fox News’ writing about Manafort’s alleged “eye-popping spending habits.” It’s also possible that focusing on Russia makes it easier for outlets to relate the story back to President Trump. Consider this line from CNN:

The trial on Manafort’s financial dealings will hang over the White House and show just how deeply federal authorities have looked into the private business of Trump associates.

In addition to CNN, the Times also made the Manafort-to-Russia-to-Trump link, suggesting the president and/or his associates may be guilty of collusion. Fox also conflated Manafort’s trial with the investigation to suggest Trump and his associates are innocent. NPR made the connection as well, but the implications of guilt were more directed at Manafort, not so much at Trump. Here’s an example:

Instead, [Judge T. S.] Ellis directed U.S. marshals to move Manafort to the detention center in Alexandria, near the courthouse. That facility has housed a variety of prominent defendants including Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, and spies Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames.

Other than having been at the same facility, what do these men have to do with Manafort? Nothing. But juxtaposing him with these men, who were all found guilty, might suggest Manafort could be guilty too. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t — that’s precisely what the court will decide.

The U.S. justice system holds certain principles to protect people’s right to a fair and impartial trial. Among those principles is the presumption of innocence — the notion that someone is innocent until proven guilty. That’s perhaps the first provision the media and the court of public opinion violate with implications of guilt, such as those noted above.

Sometimes the court bars certain contacts or information on the basis that they might prejudice the jury. For instance, federal rule 403 allows judges to dismiss evidence when it might have those effects. In Manafort’s case, it appears the judge, the defense and the prosecution agreed that Russia should be left out of the proceedings. It’s not that the media didn’t get the memo — it simply acted against the recommendation altogether.

It’s impossible not to think of a pink elephant when one is directed to do so. The articles analyzed made it impossible not to think of a Russian one.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media