Highlighting impending 'grim milestone' in Afghanistan War was not insensitive

By ERNIE GATES | Stars and Stripes ombudsman | Published: September 7, 2012

Last week the Pentagon’s top public affairs voice spoke out strongly in objection to a Stars and Stripes front page, both publicly and in direct internal messages to Stripes’ editors. Let’s take a closer look at that front page, at the objection and even at the communications process.

The dominant content on that Aug. 30 Stars and Stripes cover was a graphic explaining how different counting methodologies resulted in different totals as the “grim milestone” of 2,000 American deaths in the Afghanistan War approached.

“To have this paper feature an insensitive graphic that reduces the decadelong conflict into a question of statistics is a slap in the face to all those who have put their lives on the line for this country,” wrote Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little in a letter published in Stripes’ Sept. 1 editions.

Two days earlier, Little — who is both the top Pentagon spokesman and high in the direct chain of command that leads back to the Stripes newsroom — had been alerted by Senior Managing Editor Howard Witt that Stripes had published the graphic. Witt routinely sends an email “blast” to a list of officials and other media to draw attention to Stripes content. Not before it’s published, and not seeking approval or permission, but once it’s posted on stripes.com. I think it’s a good practice — not giving away control over what’s published, but owning it up front.

In this case, Little didn’t like the graphic, and let Witt know in a reply email. Witt explained the newsroom’s reasoning and invited Little to express his objections in a letter to the editor, which would be promptly published.

But before we get too tied up considering the back-and-forth of that process, let’s focus on the graphic itself. Was it offensive?

I don’t think so.

Certainly the subject is valid. Little is correct when he writes, “Our fallen servicemembers are not numbers.” But the number of the fallen is a hard truth, a sad truth, a truth that shouldn’t be overlooked. Yes, every loss is individual, but adding up the total doesn’t diminish or trivialize that.

As Witt replied in his original email exchange with Little, passing the 2,000 threshold will definitely produce newspaper headlines and TV news treatments over the next few weeks. Some of those may, in fact, take on a sensational tone, but the Stripes graphic did not. Such a straightforward “explainer” showing how different sources arrive at different counts was a useful glimpse into the process and did not in itself sensationalize the losses.

The troops and their families already know this cost all too well, I’m sure. I don’t think they’d say that highlighting the “grim milestone” in Stripes would be shocking or out of bounds — and certainly not “shameful,” as Little described it in his email to Witt.

So the topic was valid and the journalism rationale solid.

That leaves two questions for me: Did it belong on the front page? How well was it executed?

An “explainer” graphic would have worked on a news page inside the paper, too. How it was chosen for the front page is a question of how it stacked up against the other options at the daily news meeting. As I looked back through the rest of that day’s news, I didn’t see any story that plainly outweighed that graphic. Maybe the ex-SEAL’s then-not-yet-published Osama bin Laden book, but that was a lot of smoke with little fire. Maybe Gen. James Amos defending the nonjudicial punishment of the Marines who urinated on the bodies of enemy dead, but that was a second-day follow-up. Maybe the story about the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity using crowd-sourcing for threat assessment, but that was pretty much a “gee-whiz” story for a slow day.

Not the biggest news day, obviously.

I’d say the graphic was the best choice among the available options. It was clearly relevant to the readers and something people would be (and will be) talking about.

How about the execution? With the benefit of hindsight, I’d have changed two things:

 Put one additional story on the front page, rather than devote all the nonpromotional space to that graphic and its accompanying photo. The graphic could have been visually dominant and still allowed space for another story. The Amos or SEAL stories would have been my choice.

 The label “When will the grim milestone be reached?” was somewhat off-key. “Grim milestone” is an artful and appropriate phrase, but the question seems to anticipate the 2,000th death, rather than set up the explanation for the different counts. It’s the wrong tone. Something like “Why numbers vary as the grim milestone approaches” might have worked better.

But it’s all too easy to second-guess.

Overall, I think the newsroom did its job here. I’m sure nobody’s motive was to offend. What’s more, I’d be surprised to hear that any troops in the field were in fact offended.

Now, let’s return to the process.

Clearly a letter to the editor is an open and appropriate way for the senior DOD public affairs official to register his opinion about Stripes coverage. As Little reiterated to me this week, he wrote the letter “as someone who has the responsibility to stand up for our men and women in uniform — and our fallen heroes — when I see journalism of this nature that treats them with disrespect.” Fair enough. I don’t see the graphic that way, but letters to the editor are all about the free flow of ideas, including criticism of the paper.

From a desk high in the organization of which the Stripes newsroom is a part, though, is it appropriate for that senior official to complain directly to an editor, rather than through the chain of command?

That’s a matter of newsroom culture and practice. When I was the top editor in a daily newsroom, I tried to train publishers and corporate higher-ups to work through me first if they had concerns about coverage, rather than “bigfoot” the news staff. The editors at Stripes approach it another way. In fact, Witt’s original email blast effectively invited Little to contact him directly.

When I characterized Assistant Secretary of Defense Little as “your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss,” Witt told me, “I treat his questions just as I would questions from any reader — deserving of the best, most straightforward answer I can supply. We try to be completely transparent about what we are doing and why we make the decisions that we do, whether the query comes from the Secretary of Defense, his designated spokesman or the lowest-ranking soldier in a front-line platoon.”

In short, no problem for the newsroom leadership — though I’d say it might be a different story if Little were to direct his internal complaint deeper into the Stripes staff.

In his letter to the editor, Little captured succinctly one of the fundamental values of the Stripes newsroom: “Stars and Stripes readers — many of whom are fighting in Afghanistan — turn to this newspaper for in-depth reporting about the war and its impact on the lives of servicemembers, veterans and their families.”

I would maintain not only that the total number of the fallen is a significant fact in that reporting, but also that the front page that focused on that number should be judged as just one element, on one day, in the totality of Stripes’ excellent and multifaceted coverage of the war and its impact. From that perspective, no reasonable reader would conclude that the Stripes newsroom is insensitive to the sacrifice of servicemembers or their families.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States. 

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