Of all the qualities essential to a news organization’s credibility, the hardest to demonstrate is its independence — independence from faction, from party, from the staff’s personal interests, even from its own business interests.
That’s why the director of Defense Media Activity should rethink his determination to move the central office and newsroom of Stars and Stripes from its separate location in Washington, D.C., to the DMA’s main office and production facility at Fort Meade, Md.
Stripes’ unique hybrid nature creates an especially high hurdle for credibility. As a First Amendment enterprise subsidized by the Defense Department, it needs actions that reinforce its independence, not the other way around.
Before any more momentum develops for co-locating Stripes with the production center of command-influenced news and information, what’s needed is a thorough review of the potential consequences and a full and open exploration of alternatives.
Proving to your readers that you’re independent is difficult enough in the private, commercial press. Politicians and partisan readers assume you’re on “the other side,” whichever side that might be. Small advertisers think you’re looking out for big ones. Big ones accuse you of favoring their competitors. Fans of Team A or School B protest that you root for their rival. And readers of all kinds figure the newsroom‘s coverage is dictated by some boss at corporate headquarters.
Stripes starts from an even tougher spot. Its mission is to provide an independent news report to servicemembers and families overseas, so they can better exercise their rights of citizenship. But it’s formally an element of one of the biggest newsmakers — the Department of Defense. Or, to take a larger view, an element of an even bigger newsmaker — the federal government. Charged by its DOD directive and by Congress to operate under First Amendment principles, though, Stripes is a product of the government but not by the government. Its journalists strive every day to prove that by their performance.
So what do Stripes’ readers think about its independence?
In a contracted survey at the end of 2010, a large majority made it clear they value it. The researchers asked: “Does being independent of command influence and control improve the quality and credibility of the news that Stars and Stripes provides?” Fully 75 percent of the Stripes readers surveyed said yes.
As things stand, DMA Director Mel Russell has directed that Stripes move to Fort Meade by Sept. 28. Its lease in the National Press Building in Washington runs out in November, and he wants to accomplish the move before the end of this fiscal year.
Russell gives two reasons. First, in reviewing the lease for renewal, he decided he could not honestly certify to the General Services Administration that no suitable government-owned space was available — particularly when budget cuts were creating open space in his new building at Fort Meade. Second, dropping the lease and moving Stripes into the existing space would save $1 million a year. (The precise number is in dispute, but it’s considerable.)
On the first point, the need to protect and preserve Stripes’ essential First Amendment mission provides the necessary grounds for a legitimate exception. The DOD policy directive governing Stripes provides that “there shall be a free flow of news and information to its readership without news management or censorship.” Russell and everyone else involved grants that there is a long record of such interference in the course of Stripes’ history. In fact, a predecessor of Russell’s installed Stripes in the National Press Building in 1996 explicitly as a way of "maximizing the journalistic freedom and integrity of the Stars and Stripes staff." Even with the best intentions, there is a natural conflict between Stripes’ responsibility to report freely and DMA’s responsibility to represent command interests. In that light, the damage to Stripes’ credibility that is a predictable consequence of moving its leadership and newsroom decision-making to the DMA building is not in the government’s interest.
On the second point, a search for alternatives might well discover government-owned space that yields the expense reduction without damaging Stripes’ credibility. In addition, in response to a question from the Publisher’s Advisory Board and from me as ombudsman, Stripes’ Publisher Max Lederer said he has plans to achieve necessary expense reductions “without the need to risk the integrity of the organization.”
After meeting with the staff at Stripes’ office this week, Russell said he is open to an extension beyond his target date — but he seems to mean only taking a little longer to accomplish the move. He’s thinking about logistics and thinking about giving the staff more time to adjust, not thinking about alternatives.
Russell says time will prove that Stripes can operate freely in the physically separate space designated in the DMA building. He promises that safeguards will be in place to protect Stripes’ independence. Besides, he says, most readers don’t know where Stripes’ main office is located, so what’s the difference?
Some readers will know, and they will trust Stripes less for it. And that will erode others’ trust over time. The commercial press will know and, rather than regarding Stripes journalists as peers and competitors in a First Amendment enterprise, they will regard them as compromised by proximity to the command. That will make hiring and retaining staff more difficult. The network of command public affairs officers will know, and it will be natural for them to come to see Stripes as an extension — or at least an ally — of their controlled message.
But step back from the natural wariness between Stripes journalists and the command media operations. Step back from the director’s and the publisher’s views of how to accomplish necessary expense reductions. It’s in the best interest of the servicemembers they all serve to protect Stars and Stripes’ independence. Even further, to reinforce the perception and the reality of that independence.
The wheels have begun to turn in the direction of Fort Meade, but it’s time to put on the brakes.
Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to email@example.com, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.