Pentagon to Stars and Stripes: Permission to Cover Election Denied

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As the national media prepared to cover the historic 2008 election, Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon-funded daily newspaper, was making its own plans to report on the conclusion of the presidential race. As part of its election coverage, the paper planned to dispatch reporters to the common areas of military bases in order to chronicle the scene as the returns rolled on. A Stripes editor, Tom Skeen, advised the Pentagon of the paper’s plans beforehand as a matter of “courtesy,” but was “flabbergasted” by the response he received from the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs: stand down. “As a matter of long standing policy, DoD personnel are to avoid engaging in activities that could associate the Department with any partisan election,” the paper was told.

In a critical column today, the paper’s ombudsman fired back:

What servicemembers say while in uniform can be construed as a position of the DOD, the officials said. No matter that servicemembers, identified by name, rank and location, express themselves regularly in letters to the editor of newspapers, and in blogs. No matter that every DOD restriction placed on uniformed servicemembers with respect to politics speaks explicitly of “official capacity” actions — giving a speech, writing a column, being active in a political event such as a demonstration. No matter that Congress has clearly stated that both Stars and Stripes and “military personnel on the frontiers of freedom” must be protected by the free speech provisions of the First Amendment.

There were other arguments for barring Stripes from this fairly routine election coverage exercise. For one thing, the officials said, commercial media were not being allowed to go on bases to cover election reaction, so Stripes also should not be. This is a recurring argument that ignores the unique position of Stripes — unique not only within the U.S. government but probably within any government in the world. It has been created and is supported within the DOD to provide news and information to troops in a way that no other civilian media want to do or can do. Stripes staffers work from offices on base. They have DOD ID cards. They live and work in many respects as servicemembers themselves do. And there is no small number of active-duty personnel on assignment to Stripes as editors, reporters and photographers.

Ultimately, Stripes‘ editorial director, Terry Leonard, decided to ignore the order, instructing the paper’s reporters to carry on as planned unless they were told to stop, in which case they were to state their objections and leave without incident. And at bases in Japan and South Korea military public affairs officials did indeed intercede, preventing Stripes reporters from interviewing servicemembers. Explaining the unusual interference in the paper’s operations, a Pentagon spokesman later said that nothing good could come from covering the military perspective on presidential politics: “It’s nothing but a gateway to trouble for us.”

In the end, Stripes reporters were successful in gauging the ground-level reaction of grunts worldwide—and, at press time, the Pentagon had yet to be subsumed into the void of partisan politics.

Among the remarks relayed on Stripes‘ Twitter feed:

A1C Elias Zavala: “Go Obama. I’m not saying who I voted for, I’m just saying, ‘Go him.'”

Pfc. Michael Cunningham: “It’s kind of picking the lesser of two evils.”

Tech Sgt. (and McCain supporter) Joe Bosacco: “Hopefully I single-handedly saved the world with my absentee ballot.”

A1C Andrew Greenwell: “As far as I’m concerned, whoever wins is my commander in chief & I’ll do what he says. It really is that simple.”

(h/t Romenesko)

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