Ombudsman blog archive

Reporter complains of blacklisting in Afghanistan

Followers of this blog have read much in the last few weeks about claims by Stars and Stripes that the U.S. military in Afghanistan used analyses of journalists’ work by a contractor, the Rendon Group, to “blacklist” reporters there or improperly “steer” their coverage.

The newspaper produced no journalists or other hard evidence to substantiate those allegations, but today I came across a piece by a British reporter who asserts that blacklisting is being carried out in Afghanistan by British and American-led NATO forces.

“I was blacklisted for more than a year,” reporter Jerome Starkey wrote for Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog in a piece labeled commentary.

Starkey, who is identified as the Afghanistan correspondent for the Times of London, says that "many journalists I know here still prefer access to truth," and that rather than risk being denied embeds or other forms of access to news, “far too many of our colleagues accept the spin-laden press releases churned out of the Kabul headquarters.”

“Self-censorship is compounded by the ‘embed culture,’ which encourages journalists to visit the frontlines with NATO soldiers, who provide them food, shelter, security and ultimately with stories,” he wrote. “British troops will only accept journalists who let military censors approve their stories before they are filed.”

Although I cannot vouch for most of Starkey’s claims – and I hope we will hear from other reporters who will go on record either supporting or rebutting them – that latter part about the British review policy was confirmed to me by a senior military spokesman in Afghanistan.

The review policy is supposedly to prevent the dissemination of sensitive operational details, but Starkey says that “the British invariably use it as an opportunity to editorialize.”

Such an ill-advised practice, a throwback to the dismal state of military-media relations during the first Gulf War nearly 20 years ago, casts a pall over any and all reporting produced under such constraints. U.S. and NATO commanders should lean on the British to rescind it.

Read Starkey's full commentary at Nieman Watchdog.

Column: When ‘secret’ may not mean secret

This is the third part of a review of Stars and Stripes’ articles on the military’s use of the private Rendon Group to analyze journalists’ work in Afghanistan. The series recently received a Polk Award. The first installment of this review was published Feb. 12, the second Feb. 25. All installments are posted at stripes.com with associated links.

In its reporting last summer, Stars and Stripes variously characterized the Rendon Group’s analyses of journalists’ published and broadcast work as “secret” or “confidential,” terms that have special resonance for this newspaper’s readers.


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.