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. 

You can’t “unpublish” once it’s printed, after all.

But you can online. Almost.

After the story was rejected for print, it was only consistent to remove it from the website. But it had already made an impression there, attracting enough comments and attention that it was included in the auto-generated “Hot topics” list of links on the stripes.com home page.  When that link went nowhere, readers thought they smelled a rat.  On another “bad commander” story, online commenters digressed from their discussion of sexual conduct charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair to speculate that some Pentagon “higher-ups” had pressured Stripes into removing the Dempsey-Ward story. Since my job is both to hold the newsroom accountable and to help defend its independence, they posed the question to me here on the Ombudsman blog.

After following up with Stripes and with the AP (which stands by the story), I’m satisfied that Stripes editors rejected the story out of reasonable news judgment on deadline, not from any sinister motive or pressure from above.  That said, a persistent push to sort out the doubt after deadline probably would have brought the story back to life. Still, any regular reader must realize that Stripes isn’t shy about reporting or running “bad commander” stories. How else could there be such a robust, running gag among the online comment gang about the “Army vs. Navy” score?

Here’s what Stripes Senior Managing Editor Howard Witt told me in an email:

“(R)ather than publish a story that we felt unsure about we opted to spike it. The AP lede, for example, suggested that Ward was still a four star general and faced demotion, when we were fairly sure (but could not confirm) that he is currently only a two star general.”

So which is it? In a sense both, hence the confusion.

Based on my contact with the AP and reading previous stories, it appears that in his temporary position as a special assistant to the vice chief of the Army, where he was assigned when the Army held up his planned retirement in 2011, Ward is now technically a two-star.  The rules dictate that a general revert to two stars after being out of a four-star position, such as leading AFRICOM, for more than 60 days. But the question before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is whether Ward should be allowed to retire as a four-star, his rank during the period the IG accusations cover and at his intended retirement in 2011.

Previous AP accounts, among others, had explained all of that, but that background wasn’t included in last week’s story about the Dempsey development. Here’s the way the top of last week’s story put it:

WASHINGTON — America’s top military officer is opposing the demotion of a four-star general who is accused of spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on lavish travel and other expenses in a case that has been sitting on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s desk for weeks, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is among those who believe that Gen. William Ward, the former head of U.S. Africa Command, should be allowed to retire at his full four-star general rank, the officials said.

Other editors at other publications went with the story that way. It’s the kind of judgment call editors are supposed to make, and they don’t always agree. The AP story is still easy to find on the web, if you want the whole account.

As I said, AP stands by the story. Here’s what AP spokesman Paul Colford said in an email:

“I wish to stress that the AP story was accurate in describing Gen. Ward’s status. He is on temporary desk duty while under investigation and is receiving two-star pay but remains on the books as a four-star general. If he is cleared of the allegations of misusing taxpayer money, he will retire as a four-star general, with all the pay and benefits that go with that. If he is found to have misused the money, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta could decide to demote him and he would retire at a lower rank, sacrificing significant amounts of pay and benefits in retirement for the rest of his life.”

Given their doubt about the two-star/four-star distinction, I think Stripes editors made a fair call on deadline. Given their readers’ high interest in these stories, though, they’d have done well to get their questions resolved for the next news cycle.

In any case, I think readers can let go of their suspicion that the story was spiked because of command interference. I’m confident both Stripes and the AP will continue to watch the Ward story, and readers will see the results in print and online as it develops.


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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.

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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.