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Sequestration shouldn't be cover to shut down (or shut up) Stars and Stripes' independent voice

As Stripes’ newsroom reported last week, shutting down Stars and Stripes is under consideration as the Pentagon faces the prospect of dramatic budget cuts. Silencing Stripes’ unique, independent voice is a very bad idea, even if the motives are pure – and that’s never a sure thing when money's on the table.

In the current fiscal climate, especially facing the continuing additional cuts from sequestration, a top-to-bottom review of DOD spending is to be expected.That's basic management. But it's also an environment that can invite a few well-placed people to work out their personal preferences. In Stripes' case, that could mean someone who doesn't like its reporting using the rationale of fiscal pressure to mask an entirely different intention -- to eliminate an irritant.

Signed Defense bill blocks Stripes’ newsroom move to Fort Meade

In the hundreds of pages of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama this week are two paragraphs that block the Defense Media Activity proposal to move Stars and Stripes’ central newsroom to the home of command-centered information at Fort Meade, Md. Those two paragraphs don’t rise to the level of news coverage, but they matter for the readers who depend on Stripes to operate as a First Amendment publication, independent of command influence.

As I’ve written previously as this issue played out since spring, Stripes’ independent newsroom shouldn’t be housed in the central production facility of command-centered and command-controlled print, web and TV operations.

Nothing sinister in why Stripes spiked that Dempsey-Ward story

 “Bad commander” stories always attract attention (and online comments) in Stars and Stripes.  That was true of the Associated Press report last week that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey favors allowing former U.S. Africa Command head Gen. William Ward to retire with four stars, despite an IG report that concluded Ward, while leading AFRICOM, “engaged in multiple forms of misconduct related to official and unofficial travel.”

The AP story was posted at stripes.com, but in considering it for the print edition, editors raised a doubt about a key fact: Ward’s current rank.  He had four stars at AFRICOM, but they thought that rank was due to that command, which he left in 2011. Print deadline was near, and when they couldn’t settle their doubt, they chose not to use the story. 

Election Scorecard: Has Stripes played fair in 5 big moments in the presidential campaign?

 In previous election scorecards, I’ve tallied stories, photos, cartoons and op-eds to assess fairness, impartiality and thoroughness in the general flow of Stars and Stripes campaign coverage. In my latest column, I concentrate on five milestone moments over the past five weeks: the GOP convention, the Democrats’ convention, the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, the disclosure of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment and the first presidential debate.

The short answer: Generally very well, though there were spots I’d like to have seen more. Check the column for details. And weigh in with your own judgment, either here on in the comments section of the column.

Column preview: ‘Grim milestone’ graphic wasn’t insensitive

 As the number of servicemembers lost in the Afghanistan war nears 2,000, Stars and Stripes' front page on Aug. 30 featured a graphic explaining how different organizations arrive at different counts. The Pentagon’s most senior public affairs official called the page “a slap in the face to all those who have put their lives on the line for this country.”

In my column, I say why I think he’s off the mark. Adding up the total doesn’t diminish or trivialize any individual loss.

Column preview: Summer scorecard on campaign coverage

As the political conventions approach, it’s time to update my scorecard of how Stars and Stripes has so far met its obligation to provide readers with thorough and fair political coverage, including a broad spectrum of opinions. 

The short answer: It’s been a good summer, but the big challenge remains as the campaign season really heats up.

Column preview: Troops downrange rely on Stripes’ independence

I recently returned from a listening tour with troops deployed to American bases in the Persian Gulf region. My column online today (and in Friday’s print editions) is a report to readers about my conversations about Stars and Stripes with troops from every service, across the ranks, in Kuwait, Bahrain and another undisclosed location.

Short version: They rely on it for impartial and relevant news – plus the fun stuff, just like the American newspaper it’s designed to be. And they want another page of that little touch of home, the daily American Roundup.

Election Scorecard: Is Stripes’ Obama-Romney coverage balanced?

 Mitt Romney’s not officially the nominee yet, but he effectively clinched it by May. So how was Stripes’ Obama-Romney coverage that month?

Short answer: Well balanced, allowing for the fact that President Obama is going to make more news outside the actual campaign.  And that gives him both upside -- more presence -- and downside – more criticism.

Column preview: When war reporting becomes crime reporting

 "Where are the everyday mentions of heinous acts perpetrated by other entities on the battlefield?" asks Army Capt. Dana Fitzpatrick of the 1204th Aviation Support Battalion.

This week's column poses that question to Stripes editors and takes a look at the balance of misdeeds in coverage. 

VE Day back story: Did the Stripes reporter keep his promise to delay reporting the Nazi surrender?

Here’s another take on AP reporter Ed Kennedy’s 1945 scoop on the Nazi surrender 67 years ago today – the story of Stars and Stripes reporter Charles Kiley, who covered the surrender negotiations and (unlike Kennedy) kept his promise to Allied military authorities to delay reporting the actual surrender for 36 hours.  David Kiley recounts in the Huffington Post how his father viewed Kennedy’s “cowboy” decision to break the embargo on his own. Good reading in full, though I’ll just quote one point here:

 “[L]et's not think for a minute that Kennedy was motivated by ‘the people's right to know.’ Recalling my father's account, I know he said the following to me, though it is not on tape: ‘Kennedy wanted the scoop, plain and simple.’"

 
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Ernie Gates, ombudsman Archives

Ernie Gates

Stars and Stripes ombudsman

As a journalist for more than three decades, Ernie Gates has been a reporter, editor and news executive, including 10 years leading the enterprising print and digital newsroom of Tribune Co.’s Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va.

News for and about service members, families and veterans has always been a key focus in Hampton Roads, where every branch of the armed services has a significant presence.

As vice president and editor, Ernie was responsible for all news, business, features and sports coverage and oversaw the editorial page. He also wrote the daily Feedback column, responding to readers’ questions and comments about coverage, news judgment, journalism ethics, taste and other issues. Representing the paper as a public speaker, he focused on News Values and Credibility.

He is a past president of the Virginia Press Association and a past chairman of Virginia Associated Press Newspapers. 

Since leaving the Daily Press in 2010, Ernie has stayed active in public affairs. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at the William & Mary Law School.  He is also serves on the Coalition Partners Advisory Panel of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Ernie and his wife, Betsy, live in Williamsburg, Va. They have three adult children.

Ernie Gates can be reached at ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil or (202) 761-0587.

Follow ombudsman Ernie Gates on Twitter


The ombudsman

Congress created the post in the early 1990’s to ensure that Stars and Stripes journalists operate with editorial independence and that Stars and Stripes readers receive a free flow of news and information without taint of censorship or propaganda.

The ombudsman serves as an autonomous watchdog of Stars and Stripes’ First Amendment rights. Anyone who fears those rights are imperiled should alert the ombudsman.

The ombudsman is also the readers’ representative to the newsroom. Readers who think a journalistic issue or event was misrepresented or ignored or who feel complaints were not properly addressed by Stripes reporters or editors should contact the ombudsman.