Stripes’ election mission: Information, not persuasion
Stars and Stripes ombudsman February 1, 2024
Presidential primaries and caucuses are in full swing this winter and reputable news organizations using print, digital and broadcast reports are following each development closely. As they should. It is their responsibility in our democracy.
With GOP Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary done, attention shifts to South Carolina where Democrats hold their first national primary Feb. 3, followed by Republicans on Feb. 24. You’ll read about voters in Nevada and the U.S. Virgin Islands choosing party candidates this month; Super Tuesday with 16 states looms on March 5.
It is a good time to remember the value of journalists’ codes of ethics. “The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government,” reads the American Society of Newspaper Editors ethics code adopted shortly after World War I, 61 years after the first publication of Stars and Stripes.
Stars and Stripes fulfills that responsibility with balanced political coverage mainly through other sources, such as The Associated Press and The Washington Post. In a bit, I will tell you about one political element, though, you will not find in Stripes.
When I was an editorial page editor for Hearst Connecticut Media Group, I looked forward to the political season every year. The editorial board, generally consisting of editorial page editors and the publisher, would bring in candidates — for the U.S. Senate and House, governor and on down — and question them about their positions and policies. It was illuminating.
This process, which included research, led to the newspaper group’s endorsement of one candidate over the other. The result was conveyed in an editorial that aimed to provide information to readers and to be persuasive.
Sounds like a time-honored tradition, right? Well, it had been.
There’s debate in the industry as to whether political endorsements matter or should be issued at all. Consider the 2016 presidential election, when 57 of the largest newspapers in the country endorsed Hillary Clinton and only two endorsed Donald Trump, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We all know how that turned out.
Interestingly, 26 of the largest newspapers did not issue any endorsement that year. By the 2020 election, the number jumped to 44.
Endorsements are on the wane not only because of doubt about the impact. Some news executives look at the high political polarization in our country in recent years — more so now, I would argue — and consider endorsements a no-win situation. Few readers would be persuaded and many would be angered.
Stripes is in the business to neither persuade nor anger readers. Its mission is to provide a balanced array of fact-based information for citizens to participate knowledgably in our democracy.
This will not change. Stripes is actually prohibited from expressing political views or endorsing candidates because it is part of the Department of Defense. (In this fiscal year, DOD is expected to contribute 41% of Stripes’ operating expenses, but it does not influence Stripes’ news coverage.)
As federal employees, Stripes personnel (including me as ombudsman) come under the Hatch Act, which prohibits use of official authority or influence to interfere with an election. This pertains to while “on duty” but journalists also apply it to “off-duty.” (Though I would say journalists are never fully off-duty.) The Stars and Stripes employee handbook puts it this way: “Editorial staff members should not be active in politics and should generally avoid active involvement in demonstrations, rallies, social action events, social media or gatherings on controversial issues.”
Hands-off any political endorsements in Stars and Stripes, no matter how fascinating or important the election. But over time you will find plenty of credible information to enable you to make up your own mind when voting.