Readers had an opportunity Dec. 27 to read a column on Stars and Stripes’ Op-Ed page concerning newsgathering restraints recently issued by the government in the wake of a WikiLeaks document dump.
They should have been able to read it a week earlier, on Dec. 20, the day before those restrictions were rescinded and three days after I had publicized them Dec. 17 in an online version of that column, “Now comes don’t read, don’t tell.”
My wrangling with Stars and Stripes over a publication date produced one positive outcome. Publisher Max Lederer Jr. agreed to explicit criteria that — if enforced — ensure that this newspaper’s independent ombudsman post will remain just that.
The delay in getting the column into print began with an action attributed to the paper’s senior editor, Terry Leonard, on the afternoon of Dec. 17.
That was hours after the copy editor who has smoothly handled my work for two years scheduled publication three days later, Dec. 20, and said he would get back to me in a bit with any suggested changes, as has always been our timetable and routine.
Instead, he wrote that afternoon: “Mark, I spoke too soon earlier. Terry wants this column treated like any other (i.e., subject to editing), so I won’t be able to turn it around for print readers today. It’s what he wants for all columns; it has nothing to do with the specific subject matter of this column.
“If there are questions, please follow up with him. I’ll contact you in a few days once I know what day the column will run in print. Thanks.”
I protested by e-mail to the publisher and his boss, Mel Russell, director of Defense Media Activity, the agency that coincidentally issued the restraints Dec. 10. I got no response until Dec. 20, after I had posted a second column, “The sound of silence,” in the ombudsman’s blog section of stripes.com.
It noted that Stars and Stripes had made only one obscure mention of the restraints to date, and that there was concern among staff at a lack of internal guidance. It also reported that the initial column on the restraints had been withheld from the newspaper indefinitely, per the copy editor’s note.
A short time later, Russell informed me that Stars and Stripes had told him “Don’t read, don’t tell” would be published the next day, Dec. 21, with “subject to editing” defined as “spelling and space only.”
This was puzzling. The copy editor had had all day Dec. 17 to check my spelling, and had assured me there was ample space in the Dec. 20 paper. So if “spelling and space” were the standard, why had the column been held?
But I was eager to get it in print. Readers needed to know this newspaper’s journalists were being barred from looking at information in the public domain widely available to journalists elsewhere. So I warily agreed to publication, per “spelling and space only.”
Then Leonard sent an unsolicited note.
“Every column that goes into this newspaper is subject to editing,” he wrote. “That will remain the rule. You[r] copy has never been changed without first sending suggested revisions to you for approval. No change in that procedure has been ordered or considered. But every column including yours is subject to being edited before it is published. Seems perfectly normal to me.”
I withdrew consent for publication until I could get it in writing that the independent ombudsman’s right to publish expeditiously and without interference was unambiguous, secured and immune to “editorial oversight,” as Publisher Lederer had affirmed in a 2009 organization newsletter.
On Dec. 21, Leonard sent another unsolicited note in which he emphatically denied delaying publication, put responsibility “solely” on the copy editor and asserted that ombudsmen are subject to editing for “style, space, spelling, propriety and legal issues.”
“This does not represent a change no matter how hard and how erroneously you seek to portray it as such,” Leonard wrote. “There is no compromise to reach on this.”
In a later unsolicited note, which added “grammar” to the list, Leonard described consent to such editing as the “minimum requirement for getting into this newspaper.”
On Dec. 23, Lederer and I reached an accord that explicitly affirms the ombudsman’s right to be published without interference, delay or obeisance to the editorial department, while also providing the publisher with safeguards against abuse of that right. Only proofreading by an editor is permitted, and an ombudsman may reject even proposed changes arising from that. (See text below.)
It is essential to Stars and Stripes’ credibility that readers know an ombudsman’s commentary is freely rendered and beyond the sway and self-interests of those whose work may be mentioned in it.
Allowing the subjects of any work to “edit” or otherwise control it compromises it, and belies claims to its author’s independence.
It also negates Congress’ purpose in creating this position two decades ago as an autonomous sentinel against the sort of dangers expressly posed by government restraints on newsgathering.
This is not the first dispute I have had with a senior editor with regard to province over this post.
Last summer, Leonard’s deputy, Howard Witt, announced in a note to staff that he had removed a column from the ombudsman’s blog section at stripes.com because “we will not be posting columns as blogs.” He was later overruled and I reposted it.
If editors or even the publisher have authority over where, when and how an ombudsman can speak out, then his or her options for sounding an alarm are severely limited. Had I not previously secured direct access to stripes.com, the government’s restrictions on newsgathering might still be in place.
I emphasize that my complaints never involved the loaded term censorship, and I take exception to Leonard’s seeming efforts to imply that they did even while explicitly acknowledging that they did not.
On Dec. 22, he posted a statement on his “Editor’s Notes” blog headlined “No apologies.” It began: “The Stars and Stripes Ombudsman has recently blogged that his printed column has been blocked from publication. The current Stars and Stripes ombudsman has never been censored, steered or controlled.”
The first sentence is accurate. So is the second. But neither has anything to do with the other.
Leonard or an aide then sent out a Twitter message publicizing his statement as: “Stripes’ editorial director responds to ombudsman’s assertion that his column has been censored.”
This was despite Leonard’s public acknowledgement elsewhere to the contrary. “I am not aware that Mr. Prendergast has ever used the word censorship in his complaints,” he told stinkyjournalism.org.
Once and for all: I neither regarded nor portrayed this matter as one of censorship, only an unwarranted editorial intrusion into the independent ombudsman’s space, which I trust will not occur again.
For several links associated with this column, please go to Mark Prendergast’s Right to Know blog at blogs.stripes.com/blogs/the-right-to-know
Joint statement on Ombudsman position
Following is a joint statement by Publisher Max Lederer Jr. and Ombudsman Mark J. Prendergast on the relationship between the newspaper and the position of independent Ombudsman:
It is agreed:
• that the Ombudsman’s right to exercise his duties and to publish his work in any Stars and Stripes venue without management or editorial oversight is affirmed to the maximum extent possible.
• that the Ombudsman has the right to publish directly to the Web site without prior review.
• that the designated editor will proofread an Ombudsman column submitted for publication in the newspaper as soon as possible after it is filed, and convey without delay any suggested changes to the Ombudsman.
• that the Ombudsman may reject any suggestions.
• that the designated editor, in consultation with the Ombudsman, will schedule the column for expeditious production and ensure that that schedule is met. The precise day will be set by the editor in charge of the Op-Ed page, though with full consideration to publishing in a timely fashion.
• that the newspaper will not delay publication for any reason other than logistical factors involving physical production or strong concern that publication would constitute a serious breach of law or commonly understood professional standards and practices. It is agreed that the Publisher will try to seek the counsel of experts outside Stars and Stripes before taking such action.
• that the Publisher will immediately convey any decision to delay or withhold publication to the attention of the Ombudsman and to the Director of Defense Media Activity and provide explicit reasons.
• that anyone at Stars and Stripes with access to the Ombudsman’s copy may read it before publication, and is encouraged to do so, and to convey any concerns directly to the editor proofreading and placing the column for publication or, in his or her absence, directly to the Ombudsman.
• that the Publisher and his subordinates shall immediately bring to the attention of the Ombudsman any matter that would reasonably be seen to fall within the Ombudsman’s official and understood purview, like any efforts that might infringe on the organization’s right to operate free of censorship or news management or compromise professional standards.