Ombudsman blog archive
The sound of silence
Published: December 20, 2010
2nd UPDATE: The column "Now comes don't read, don't tell" will not be published in tomorrow's (Tuesday's) editions. That's because the senior editor of Stars and Stripes, Terry Leonard, is still asserting authority over the ombudsman's work that goes beyond the "spelling and space" standard I was assured would be in place earlier today. I won't consent to publication until agreement on this point is reached. The integrity of the ombudsman's work is at stake, future as well as present. The column continues to be available to readers here.
1st UPDATE: The director of Defense Media Activity informed me by e-mail at 9:33 a.m. today that Stars and Stripes had told him that my column challenging new restraints on this newspaper's journalists would be published in tomorrow's (Tuesday's) editions. The director, Mel Russell, further informed me that he had been assured that my work would be edited for "spelling and space only."
We'll have to see how that "space" thing plays out.
* * *
The silence has been deafening from the masthead of Stars and Stripes now 10 days after the government imposed restrictions on the ability of the organization’s journalists to access information widely available to nearly everyone else in the world.
This disquieting quietude on a matter so crucial to Stars and Stripes’ credibility and the
integrity of its work has not gone unnoticed within its newsroom.
The restrictions were issued in an all-hands e-mail sent out at 9:32 a.m. Friday, Dec. 10,
by Defense Media Activity, the umbrella Pentagon agency that encompasses Stars and Stripes.
DMA said they were mandated by government-wide damage control enacted after the Wikileaks disclosures.
Four and a half hours later, I formally requested clarification from DMA, challenging the
inclusion of Stars and Stripes, which had had no hand in the lapse of security that led to
reams of classified documents being published on the Internet.
Five days later, I asked DMA when I could expect a reply. That was answered the next morning with an opinion from the DMA legal counsel.
The time stamp showed it had been sent to Stars and Stripes’ legal counsel three days
earlier, on Monday morning.
On Wednesday morning, Publisher Max Lederer Jr. tweeted without comment a story by his Pentagon reporter that Air Force personnel were being barred from using government computers to access the New York Times Web site, among others, because it contained classified material from the Wikileaks disclosures. It was published Thursday on Page 5.
The 12th paragraph of that 14-paragraph story mentioned that Stars and Stripes was also covered by recent directives that in the 13th paragraph were explained as forbidding “all employees and contractors from accessing websites that post classified or sensitive
information from their government-owned and personal computers.” The final paragraph was a quote from the DMA’s Dec. 10 memo.
And that was that.
No comment from the publisher or senior editors. Nothing on “Editors Notes,” the blog they recently started to speak directly and quickly to readers. (If they’d called, they sure
would have gotten a quote from me.)
As far as I can see, the buried reference in the Air Force story to Stars and Stripes has
been its only public acknowledgement of the restraints on its reporting, other than the
column I posted online Friday.
Some Stars and Stripes journalists are troubled by the silence inside their organization, as well.
Past and present staffers said senior editors should have immediately assured their people on Dec. 10 that they would challenge the restrictions, and then offered guidance on how to handle situations that might run afoul of them.
Even if the masthead were working behind the scenes to get the Pentagon to exempt Stars and Stripes, the lack of guidance has left every journalist there with a difficult and unfair individual choice: risk committing some violation, even inadvertently, with career or even legal consequences, or not do their jobs properly.
Despite having an ombudsman specifically charged with acting as watchdog and defender of the organization’s First Amendment press freedoms, no one on the masthead has yet contacted me about this issue. And the only written communication I have seen is the DMA legal counsel’s memo cc’d to his counterpart at Stars and Stripes a week ago – which cited only my queries.
The cone of silence was partly dropped over me as well Friday afternoon, when word was
passed that the organization’s senior editor, Terry Leonard, had directed that my first
column on the DMA memo be held out of the newspaper’s Monday Op-Ed pages. (I posted it online here Friday morning.)
The copy editor who for years has proof-read and placed ombudsman columns in the paper said Leonard had told him that ombudsman columns were now “subject to editing” and that I would be informed when the edited version would be published.
I will not consent to publication of an “edited” version of that or any other column. I will
post directly to this blog as long as I have access to it, and if need be, to other venues.
I protested Leonard’s action to the publisher and to the head of the DMA via e-mail Friday afternoon. As of this post Monday morning, I had received no reply. [I have since received one response. Please see the "update" at the top of this page.]
This turn of events comes despite the autonomy of the ombudsman’s post being affirmed twice in the last 16 months.
In June, Leonard’s deputy, Howard Witt, took down one of my blog posts and then claimed authority over the ombudsman’s blog in an e-mail to staff. A few days later, his action and claim were annulled and I was able to re-post the item.
Ten months earlier, Publisher Lederer had unambiguously laid out the ombudsman’s
prerogatives in the organization’s August 2009 newsletter:
(This is an excerpt; his entire “Letter from the Publisher” is reproduced below.)
“The role of the Ombudsman at Stars and Stripes carries considerable autonomy. The Stars and Stripes Ombudsman has a right to publish columns in the paper and on our web site without Stars and Stripes management or editorial oversight. … In fact, no one has control or influence over the thoughts and reports of the Ombudsman – not even the Executive branch.”
Leonard and Witt’s attempts to exert authority run counter to the essence of ombudsmanship – editorial independence and freedom from the dictates and self-interests of the people whom the ombudsman may have to hold to account.
They also contravene the will of Congress, which anticipated this sort of situation when it
established the post as independent two decades ago to provide “aggressive and objective oversight” after finding “conclusive evidence” of news management by the military.
Editorial control over the work of an independent ombudsman runs counter to practice and principle at other major news organizations and the Organization of News Ombudsmen.
And in this particular instance, Leonard’s action would seem counterintuitive. Why muffle a voice speaking up for you?
The editors have no authority over the work of the ombudsman. And they should not be allowed to act as if they do. Especially when that work involves protecting the credibility of Stars and Stripes as a source of independent news free of censorship or news management.
* * *
Here is the full text of the “Letter from the Publisher” in the August 2009 Stars and Stripes organizational newsletter:
"Frequently I and others talk about the Ombudsman for Stars and Stripes. We have columns in the newspaper from the Ombudsman and we have a blog on our website.
"Several questions reoccur: Why does Stars and Stripes have an Ombudsman? What is the Ombudsman role in reference to Stars and Stripes? Is it the same as at other news organizations?
"As with many aspects of Stars and Stripes, the Ombudsman’s relationship is unique. In most news organizations the Ombudsman acts as the readers’ representative — promoting the reader’s voice to the news organization, cajoling the news staff to go one direction or another, and educating the reader about the news process.
"In that scenario, the Ombudsman works for the news organization and is subject to the organization’s financial and personnel pressures. The first newspaper Ombudsman in the U.S. was appointed by the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky. In spite of believing in the position’s value, the paper abolished the position when the recession began to affect newsrooms.
"The creation of an Ombudsman position at Stars and Stripes occurred in 1991. It was the direct result of findings by Congress of censorship and improper news management of Stars and Stripes in the late 1980s. Congress made DoD aware that it desired the creation of an Ombudsman to ensure that Stars and Stripes’ journalistic efforts remained free of improper influences and that the paper remained balanced, fair and accurate.
"As a result the Ombudsman function was established.
"The role of the Ombudsman at Stars and Stripes carries considerable autonomy. The Stars and Stripes Ombudsman has a right to publish columns in the paper and on our web site without Stars and Stripes management or editorial oversight.
"The Ombudsman reports to Congress regularly in regards to the independence of Stars and Stripes. The Ombudsman does serve as the reader advocate, but the primary role is oversight of Stars and Stripes’ editorial independence.
"In fact, no one has control or influence over the thoughts and reports of the Ombudsman — not even within the Executive branch. This is a term position without possibility of
renewal, effectively eliminating any possibility of subjecting the Ombudsman to outside
"The role of Ombudsman is an important one for ensuring the continued integrity of Stars and Stripes’ journalism. Mark Prendergast is the seventh Ombudsman for Stars and Stripes. He is an experienced journalist and journalism educator. I encourage all of you to read his columns and blogs, talk to him and learn more about his role.”