Does Stripes pass the balance test?


“Considering the content of your opinion page,” writes a reader, “you should change the name of the paper to ‘Hammer and Sickle.’ ”

The Cold War reference is dated and overstated. Stars and Stripes is not a communist mouthpiece. But the sentiment that Stars and Stripes has veered leftward is a common lament among a vocal portion of the readership. Most complaints of this sort are general in nature, so I follow up by asking for specifics. That’s frequently the end of the exchange. Not this time.

A week later he wrote again: “Take 13 October 2016 opinion pages 20, 21.” Among four articles on those two pages, he said, were “3 anti-Trump; one innocuous. Only 3 leftist bull**** articles. That is better than normal for this rag.”

Was the tone demeaning and insulting? Yes. But was the anger justified? Maybe. The fact was, this Oct. 13 spread came just a few days after news broke about Republican candidate Donald Trump’s infamous comments about grabbing and kissing women without their consent, and it had been the dominant story in all forms of media for nearly a week. So I was not surprised that the balance on this day tilted against Trump. The real question was whether Stripes’ commentary page achieved balance over time.

Stripes is mandated by regulation to provide a balanced editorial page. Department of Defense Instruction 5122.11 states: “Since the STARS AND STRIPES may not take an independent editorial position, a balanced selection of syndicated opinion columns shall be published over a reasonable time period.”

So what’s “a reasonable period of time” in this heated, surprising and often unreasonable election season? Three days? A week? Given the accusations and revelations we’ve seen about each candidate these past few months, the changing tides and story lines, I took a longer view and reviewed the opinion pages for the last 21 days in October.

The period in question began two days after the first reports on the Trump video and a day after WikiLeaks posted emails from the hacked account of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, among them disparaging comments about Catholics and evangelical Christians. The period ended a few days after FBI Director James Comey reopened the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails when possible additional evidence cropped up during the agency’s sexting investigation of Anthony Weiner, who is married to Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

In other words, there was plenty of news to fuel outraged critics and deft defenders on both sides of the race.

Of 62 opinion columns published over those 21 days:

 Nearly half — 29 — were neutral.

 Seven columns were negative toward both candidates.

 One column was clearly negative about Clinton, while three were clearly positive about her.

 25 were clearly negative about Trump — and not one was clearly positive about him.

Any way you slice it, that’s not balanced.

I do not believe Stars and Stripes editors set out deliberately to build a one-sided commentary section. I’ve spoken to Brooks E. Bowers, the editor who oversees these pages, multiple times about balance, and I believe he knows his mission and strives to achieve it. But does he have the tools to succeed? I don’t think so. For one thing, Bowers has other duties to juggle besides finding and editing op-ed columns. More important, his choices are limited.

Stripes gets its commentaries from four sources: The Washington Post, the Tribune News Service, Bloomberg News and, in some cases, direct submissions. These choices were not broad enough to produce a fair and balanced section during this presidential campaign.

Among columnists, as with leaders in both parties, the twists and turns of this year were hardly predictable. Long-time Republican conservative George F. Will (who has long been featured regularly in Stripes) was ardently opposed to Trump’s candidacy; it’s not clear he still represents the majority Republican view. Kathleen Parker, once seen as a conservative voice, is also harder to define. Parker is “in that space between the two parties,” Bowers said, and sometimes “she’ll call out both parties in the same column.” True enough, and that can aid overall balance.

But what’s clear from a basic count and review is that Stripes did not publish columnists who backed the Republican nominee during this period nor did it find many columns that found significant fault with Hillary Clinton without also finding at least as much fault with Donald Trump. Something was missing.

Bowers and the paper’s top editor, Terry Leonard, both note that this election cycle posed particular challenges in achieving balance. True. But Stripes could have and should have done better. There are columnists out there who articulated the case for a Trump presidency; there are more who made the case why Clinton should not be elected. But those columnists aren’t published in The Washington Post. There lies the heart of the problem.

As a Post subscriber myself, I expect a liberal bent to its editorial page. I also subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, however, which has a conservative bent. Between the two, I get balance. Stripes readers don’t have the luxury of receiving two papers. So the one they do get must deliver more variety.

Here are some column headlines you didn’t read in Stripes over those same 21 days: “Grifters-in-Chief,” by Kimberly Strassel, on the blurring of the lines between the Clintons’ for-profit and charitable work; “Doesn’t Clinton Embarrass Democrats?” by James Freeman, which ponders why “in polite society, only Republicans are supposed to feel bad about their candidate”; and “Dumb and Dumber,” Daniel Henninger’s argument that Clinton will make America’s struggling schools worse, not better. All three appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Asked if Stripes has any plans to change its approach to commentary in 2017, Leonard said no. He should reconsider.

To achieve its balanced op-ed mandate, Stripes should:

• Expand its sources of commentary. If The Wall Street Journal is not an option, explore alternatives. If this means spending a little more money, find it.

• Consider restoring a conservative-liberal column pairing. Stripes used to publish conservative Ann Coulter opposite liberal Ariana Huffington each Monday, but stopped in 2009. Perhaps it’s time again to choose a pair of voices to argue the yin and yang of national politics. Locking in and labeling such columns is one way to show readers that, at least on one day each week, balance is guaranteed.

• Consider publishing opposing newspaper editorials on a weekly basis. Stripes for years has published a selection of condensed newspaper editorials each Friday. In their place, there could be value in publishing editorials that voice opposing views on issues of national and international interest.

Publishing a balanced commentary section isn’t just a goal for Stars and Stripes; it’s a fundamental obligation. If the sources Stripes relies on can’t deliver that balance, new sources must be tapped.

Disagree with my take? Have a better idea? I want to hear from you. Send me an email at naegele.tobias@stripes.com or post a comment with this column online.

Tobias Naegele, Stars and Stripes' ombudsman

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