When war reporting becomes crime reporting
By ERNIE GATES | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: May 17, 2012
It’s not news when people behave the way they’re supposed to behave. It’s news when they don’t.
And that goes for when American troops deviate from the values they represent and defend. But sometimes, as Army Capt. Dana Fitzpatrick of the 1204th Aviation Support Battalion emailed me, it seems like it won’t let up.
“Every day I read the Stars and Stripes here in Kuwait and not a day goes by where the foolish acts of a few Soldiers aren’t mentioned,” he wrote. “Not only are they mentioned, but they are enumerated in excruciating detail. I do not excuse the acts of those who urinated on Taliban corpses, the lone gunman who slaughtered 17 Afghan innocents, Soldiers posing with body parts, the burning of Korans, a few hooligans beating a sheep, or the age-old favorite Marine throwing a puppy off a cliff. That’s all fine and good to hold the military members accountable for poor discipline.”
“However,” wrote the Kentucky National Guard captain, “where are the everyday mentions of heinous acts perpetrated by other entities on the battlefield? If you’re going to mention every day about misdeeds on the part of U.S. forces, then you need to go the extra mile to dig up issues from the other side as well.”
Fair enough. In fact, in the same week that Fitzpatrick emailed me, Stripes carried a story about the Pakistani Taliban beheading 13 Pakistani security personnel and displaying two of their heads on wooden poles. And one about the video released by al-Qaida showing 70-year-old American aid worker Warren Weinstein, who was kidnapped last year in Pakistan, pleading that he would be killed unless President Barack Obama met his captors’ demands. Those stories conjured an ominous reminder of al-Qaida’s brutal execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl.
So there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of stories about Taliban and al-Qaida atrocities, which is as it should be.
I shared Fitzpatrick’s point with Assistant Managing Editor Brian Bowers, who leads the team that puts together the daily report from many news services and Stripes’ staff reporters.
“I agree that we should mention the atrocities committed by our foes,” he told me. “I also believe that we need to point out when our allies commit similar crimes. However, we have to remember that we Americans hold our troops to a higher standard, so it’s bigger news when they do something wrong.”
Adding context to daily news developments, Bowers said, can also mean reciting a list of previous incidents. Of course, an editor’s background list can be a reader’s relentless drumbeat.
To that point, a Stripes story about Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaking to troops at Fort Benning, Ga., on May 4 is probably what moved Fitzpatrick to email me. From that story, here’s an example of the kind of background paragraph Bowers mentioned: “The most recent public relations setback resulted from publication of photos taken in 2010 that depicted grinning U.S. soldiers posing with body parts of failed Afghan suicide bombers. Earlier scandals involved video of Marines urinating on dead insurgents and a photo of Marine snipers posing with a Nazi symbol on a flag, as well as videos showing troops beating a sheep with a bat and throwing a puppy off a cliff. Older videos made in Iraq featured troops mocking children and insulting Islam.”
Pretty much Fitzpatrick’s list, right down to that poor puppy.
But the story also wrapped up with a Panetta quote that put the ugly actions in perspective: “I know these incidents represent a very, very, very small percentage of the great work that our men and women do across the world,” he said.
A similar percentage probably applies to the ugly or embarrassing incidents in the full scope of Stripes’ coverage of the troops, even though those notorious acts are, well, notorious.
Stripes Editorial Director Terry Leonard and I also discussed Fitzpatrick’s email.
“We do report on the atrocities committed by enemies on the battlefield and elsewhere,” Stripes’ top editor said. “We do it regularly whenever there is evidence of such atrocities to report. But there is a difference. Beyond reporting that it happened, there is not as much to report. You can have comments on how it happened and where it happened. But we are not able to interview the perpetrators or their commanders. It is not really possible, beyond the speculation of experts, to dig down into why they committed such atrocities or what they hoped to achieve or what could they possibly have been thinking.”
Leonard said the case of Sgt. Robert Bales and other incidents also rate continuing coverage because they cast a long shadow. “When a soldier is accused of killing 17 civilians, that raises a lot of troubling questions that can’t be ignored. … The other acts also raise questions about us, about what the long wars and multiple deployments are doing to us.”
Here’s Leonard’s overall take: “I certainly don’t agree with the premise that we go looking for the kind of news that reflects badly on our troops,” he said. “The American military community is our audience. They are the people we serve. We believe the way to serve them best is to give them the news that is important or relevant to them in a way that is as fair, balanced and accurate as possible. We are not there to support the mission by telling only good-news stories. We are there to inform the readers and to do so, in the old phrase, ‘without fear or favor.’ ”
Sometimes that gets ugly. But, from all I’ve seen, that approach fairly well sums up how Stripes journalists strive to deliver a credible and independent report for an audience they respect.
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