The challenge of telling uncomfortable truths
It is human nature to want to leave something better than you found it. With today my last as ombudsman, I wish I could write a valedictory claiming that. But I can’t.
First and foremost, Stars and Stripes’ standing as an independent source of news is threatened by a wrongheaded government response to the WikiLeaks disclosures that raises the specter of censorship. Like the rest of the federal workforce, the paper’s journalists were told last year that they may not look at classified documents that have been leaked to the public.
Reporters and editors must be able to consult information in the public domain if the concept of a free press is to have any meaning. This isn’t something new.
“We simply cannot in good conscience send troops abroad to lead the struggle for freedom — and censor Stars and Stripes,” Sen. William Proxmire said in 1987. “Our people overseas deserve better than second-class treatment.”
Economically, the paper’s survival is imperiled by federal budget cuts and the same challenges other media face — declining audiences and shifts in how people get news and information.
Stars and Stripes can slow or even stave off a dire fate if it defends its editorial integrity, hews to its roots, stays relevant to its readers and remembers their interests come first. And that includes their sensibilities.
This military is an all-volunteer force. Stars and Stripes should deliver hard truths, but never in a tone that says “gotcha” or that disrespects its readers’ chosen life. As the late Washington columnist Mary McGrory counseled journalists, “Be nice to people, but not to power.”
It’s not easy, this job of telling hard truths to people who may not want always to hear them. It takes skill, savvy, sensitivity and a real feel for your audience. But it’s important. A hallmark of a free and open society is a willingness to hear and face uncomfortable truths about itself.
Stars and Stripes could use a champion like the late Proxmire now, but it’s caught in a crossfire of perceptions that do not inspire one.
To some, especially in upper echelons, its pesky pursuit of news beyond official statements undermines command messages and priorities and places it under suspicion.
To others, mostly in the ranks or the civilian world, Stars and Stripes is anything from irrelevant to a costly anachronism to a shill for the defense establishment. A while back, a newly hired editor was quoted elsewhere saying the paper was “tame” with “a tradition here of people pulling their punches when it comes to covering the Pentagon.”
That rankled a staff that had earlier watched a censorship dispute culminate in an editor’s resignation, and that itself had reported aggressively on an improper movement of Pentagon funds through Stars and Stripes accounts. When the publisher refused to provide documents, several editors publicly accused him of “stonewalling” and demanded he resign.
That may have been a lot of things, but tame it was not. If they gave Purple Hearts for career wounds, some would have oak leaf clusters.
As for the ombudsman post, I have no idea who will succeed me. Unlike my predecessor, I was not asked to share my thoughts on the job with the search committee, such as there may be, and my requests to do so have been ignored.
More troubling is language in ads for the position suggesting it will be weakened by curtailing the ombudsman’s ability to report to Congress unilaterally, as we have for two decades, and by cutting the three-year term to two with, I understand, only the possibility of a third.
Both changes rein in an ombudsman, lest he or she prove too noisy in advocating reader interests, critiquing the paper or protecting its promised First Amendment rights (not “privileges,” as stripes.com mischaracterizes them).
These measures were tried in 2000 — and scrapped after appeals to Congress and the Pentagon by former Ombudsmen Bill Monroe and Phil Robbins and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Sadly, I suspect the impetus for resurrecting these discredited limits on vigorous, independent ombudsmanship now comes as much from Stars and Stripes as the Defense Department.
My work has irked the paper’s masthead as well as the Pentagon. My credentials, character, abilities and even sanity have been assailed in comments to me, to staffers and beyond. I have been threatened with legal action once I no longer have the protection of this office.
Ruffled feathers aside, the leadership needs to understand that this is what ombudsmen do: critique what is published, field and investigate complaints from readers and staff without interference and, at Stars and Stripes, defend the staff’s right to gather and report the news without fear or favor for a global audience that is often in harm’s way and unable to get a full accounting anywhere else.
An unfettered ombudsman gives a government-owned news outlet credibility. Putting its ombudsman on a leash does not.
Although I don’t know who is on the search committee, I’m pretty sure who isn’t — an SPJ representative, as there was in 2008.
That’s a mistake. SPJ has a distinguished record in advocating Stars and Stripes’ independence and First Amendment rights, including the establishment and preservation of the ombudsman post.
“SPJ played a significant role in creating the modern Stars and Stripes,” an SPJ leader, Ian Marquand, wrote in 2000 in urging his organization to weigh in on the disputes over censorship and the ombudsman.
He was referring to the 1980s, when Congress tired of receiving complaints from Stripes staffers, or reading of them elsewhere, and asked SPJ to aid a government inquiry. It found censorship, and Congress ordered reforms in 1989 that included appointment of an ombudsman.
Most recently, an SPJ official was among the journalists and First Amendment advocates who joined me in a session with Pentagon officials on how the post-WikiLeaks policy is anathema to the principles of a free press and contrary to official pledges of autonomy for Stars and Stripes.
Earlier, SPJ put a shoulder to the wheel by recognizing my opposition to that policy with its First Amendment Award and a Sigma Delta Chi award. I would hate to think that figured in SPJ’s apparent disinvitation to assist again in the selection of an ombudsman.
Lastly, remember this newspaper belongs, more than any other, to its readers, to you. Not the Pentagon, not the publisher, not the editors. Your subscription has been paid in blood and treasure, by you and generations before you. Defend it, and demand the best from it.
I can be reached at exombud (at) verizon.net.