Series on screening needed follow-up reporting

It may come as a surprise to readers, as it did me, that one of Stars and Stripes’ most prominent enterprise-reporting efforts over the past year was arguably less than comprehensive and contained errors that have not been corrected.

A spate of front-page articles, published during one week last summer, concerned the use of a private communications company by the United States military in Afghanistan to review the published and broadcast work of journalists seeking to embed with American forces there.

The articles concluded Aug. 31 with an announcement by the military’s chief public affairs officer in Afghanistan that he was canceling the contract because the publicity had become a “distraction.”

I did not learn until much later that the media contractor, the Rendon Group of Washington and Boston, issued a lengthy public statement with supporting documents on Sept. 3, three days after the last Stars and Stripes article on Rendon.

In its anti-climactic statement headlined “The Rendon Group Responds to Inaccurate Reports,” Rendon challenged assertions in Stars and Stripes and other news media, but with its contract now history, its claims garnered little attention. Stars and Stripes ignored the document, leaving readers unaware of its existence.

The newspaper’s editor, Terry Leonard, recently told me that Rendon had had ample opportunity to present its side during the week that Stars and Stripes published its five stories about the contract, four of them breaking-news efforts reported and written on deadline. Leonard’s deputy, Howard Witt, who was more closely involved with the coverage, expanded.

“Stars and Stripes reporters repeatedly contacted the Rendon Group seeking their side of the story,” Witt wrote in a recent e-mail to me. “Rendon representatives confined their replies to written statements and e-mails, which we duly included on 8/24 and 8/27.”

Rendon issued two public statements, 380 words on Aug. 26 and 700 words on Sept. 3, in response to Stars and Stripes’ reporting. The latter, Witt said, contained assertions “of dubious credibility” and was not worth pursuing.

“We did not feel it necessary to publish a story that would state Rendon’s misleading claims and then proceed to debunk them,” Witt said. “We had already permitted Rendon the opportunity to have their say during the course of the original stories, and we had even allowed them to make an untrue statement in the paper. That was more than fair. We did not have an obligation to publish more of their spin simply because they issued it in a press release.”

I disagree.

When the subject of several recent page-one stories seeks to rebut or question reporting that clearly had a material impact on it – in this case loss of a $1.5 million contract – then a news organization ought to give it a full and fair hearing somewhere in its pages, even if it is only “to debunk” the claims.

That is not just for the benefit of the subject but more importantly for the readers, who always deserve the fullest possible accounting, particularly when that involves a high-profile issue bristling with controversy and contradiction. It also builds credibility with future sources, who might otherwise wonder if they can expect a fair shake.

In the course of revisiting Stars and Stripes’ Rendon coverage, I came across additional items that I hope the editors will either address in the form of corrections or editor’s notes and take action to prevent replication in future reports.

For example, readers may be surprised to learn, as I was, that Stars and Stripes was not the first news organization to disclose the practice of having outside contractors assess journalists’ work for the military in Afghanistan, despite the newspaper’s assertions to the contrary.

“Stars and Stripes first reported on Monday [Aug. 24] about the existence of the reporter profiles,” the newspaper said on Aug. 28. Elsewhere in the same article, it cited the “media profiles, the existence of which Stars and Stripes revealed earlier this week.” The next day, Aug. 29, it repeated the claim in its fourth story on the issue: “Stars and Stripes revealed the existence of the profiles this week in several stories.”

The National Public Radio program “On the Media” was well ahead of the newspaper in publicizing the screening, reporting the existence of the analyses on Aug. 7 during an interview with an Army officer in Afghanistan who described them as “almost Orwellian.”

“In my opinion,” the officer, Matt Mabe, a journalist in civilian life, told the NPR program co-host Bob Garfield in reference to the screening, “this just counters the ideals that we who wear the uniform are expected to represent.”

When NPR’s Garfield interviewed Witt on Aug. 28 in an appearance intended to promote Stars and Stripes’ reporting on the Rendon analyses, Witt did not dispute Garfield’s claim to have brought the issue to light with the Mabe interview.

“Triggered in part by an interview on this program,” Garfield said as he began the interview, “Stars and Stripes confirmed that a Washington P.R. firm has provided evaluations of reporters’ relative degrees of positivity. Howard Witt is senior managing editor of Stars and Stripes, and he joins me now. Howard, welcome to the show.”

Howard Witt: “Thank you so much for having me.”

On Sept. 4, in reporting the cancellation of the Rendon contract, Garfield’s co-host, Brooke Gladstone, again gave their own program credit for disclosing that private companies were screening journalists for the military, citing the Aug. 7 NPR interview with Mabe and giving a shout-out – along with a tweak – to Stars and Stripes for following up.

“The [contract cancellation] announcement came after a week of scoops from the newspaper Stars and Stripes, which decided to investigate after a reporter heard Army captain and erstwhile journalist Matt Mabe mention the profiling on our show,” Gladstone said, according to a transcript. “Mabe spoke to Bob [Garfield] a few weeks ago from his post in Afghanistan where he witnessed the profiling. Good work, Captain Mabe, and you too, Stars and Stripes. Thanks for listening.”

I have independently confirmed Gladstone’s assertion as to her program’s having been the genesis of the story for Stars and Stripes.

Leonard responded to my question about crediting NPR with a lengthy statement defending Stars and Stripes’ reporting. Addressing the credit issue, he allowed that “it is also true that a National Public Radio program mentioned the existence of the profiling program two weeks before publication of the first Stars and Stripes story, and we could have taken note of that fact.”

Some journalists think that acknowledging the work of others diminishes the luster of their own, although this is changing in the wake of a number of ethical scandals in journalism in recent years. I have no evidence that that happened here.

Still, reporters and editors everywhere need to be vigilant and rigorous about crediting the work of others, not simply because it’s the honorable thing to do but because it’s also the smart thing: it enhances credibility with readers, sources and competitors and encourages others to credit one’s own work as well.

While Stars and Stripes did most of the heavy lifting in driving the Rendon story to its climax, it should correct the record and acknowledge NPR’s seminal reporting rather than allow the notion to endure that the newspaper had uncovered the media-screening practice on its own.

Subsequent columns will continue the ombudsman’s review of Stars and Stripes’ coverage of the Rendon matter, a story the newspaper recently listed as among the most important military news of 2009. Installments will be posted on the ombudsman’s Right to Know blog, along with all associated links.

This column was originally published in Stars & Stripes on February 9, 2010.

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