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.

That shouldn't happen, but it's something to be watchful about.

Good intentions or otherwise, Stars and Stripes shouldn't be on anybody's elimination list. Its independent and focused coverage is highly valued within the military community, based on my talks with service members around the world -- in every service, at many ranks -- and with family members, commanders and people in public affairs. As ombudsman, I listen to all voices, including the relative few who think Stripes should either fall in with the command message or go away. But those are far outnumbered by the readers who look forward to Stripes and rely on its independence.

Stripes' free press mission has mattered historically, it matters today and it will matter in years to come. Sequestration shouldn’t be used as cover to shut it down (or shut it up).                                                       

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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.