My mission: Protect Stars and Stripes' freedom

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Tobias Naegele, Stars and Stripes' ombudsman
Tobias Naegele, Stars and Stripes' ombudsman

My mission: Protect Stars and Stripes' freedom

by: Tobias Naegele | .
Stars and Stripes Ombudsman | .
published: April 05, 2016

About six weeks ago I joined Stars and Stripes as its new ombudsman. That means I’m a sort of outside investigator, both a reader’s advocate and an inspector general of sorts, one with a particular mission to protect Stripes’ press freedoms and to ensure it delivers a fair and balanced product.

I bring a certain amount of baggage to the job. We all have baggage.

Mine accumulated over more than two decades with a competitor, most of that time as the chief editor overseeing Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times and Marine Corps Times. That means I’m familiar with the ins and outs of military journalism, but not necessarily the unique issues associated with Stars and Stripes. I decided to observe first, speak second.

Changing my stripes (pardon the pun) meant challenging my own preconceived notions. Everything looks a little different when you get close enough to distinguish the details. Having competed with Stars and Stripes for news, readers, Pentagon attention and even staff, I already knew we speak the same language. It’s the accent that isn’t always the same.

Stripes Executive Editor Terry Leonard defines that difference this way. Military Times exists to deliver military news to a military audience, while Stars and Stripes exists to deliver general news to a military audience. My old papers focused exclusively on military matters, but Stripes must include national, international and even local coverage.

Here’s another difference: The Military Times products are civilian-owned and controlled. Stars and Stripes is owned and operated by the Department of Defense.

This may be news to some of you.

Can the government publish a fair and balanced newspaper and news site, free from interference and censorship? Most of the time, yes. But it only takes one misstep to raise doubt about everything one does. That makes this a challenging and complex question.

All publishers — even not-for-profits — face pressure from time to time. Reader groups may protest or boycott; advertisers may pull their ad spending; government institutions may withhold access.

Usually, these interests maintain a balanced equilibrium.

But when an interested party owns the news outlet, the stakes go up. The potential for pressure and undue influence increases, if only because an interested party controls the paychecks of every person in the organization.

Readers will inevitably wonder if news is being manipulated for the publisher’s advantage.

In the 1980s, questions about censorship in Stars and Stripes arose in the Pacific, prompting investigations. The net result: Congress affirmed Stars and Stripes’ mission to provide daily news coverage for the extended military community, and established the ombudsman position to be an independent guardian of Stars and Stripes’ editorial independence.

My job, then, is threefold:

  • First, to protect Stars and Stripes’ First Amendment right to publish news and information without undue pressure or influence from the chain of command.
  • Second, to be a reader advocate, to investigate concerns about bias and balance and to advocate for fair, accurate and balanced news coverage.
  • Third, to inform and educate the readership about the business and practice of news reporting, so that you, the readers, better understand editorial decisions and processes.

This means I’m really here for you.

A free press provides a necessary check on government by making its actions more visible and understandable to the public. In the military, that free press is even more important because servicemembers give up many of their freedoms when they raise their right hand and volunteer to serve our country. The military press has a special duty to look out for the rights of military members, veterans and their families.

I see that special duty as a calling.

When you volunteer to serve your country, you give up individual rights and freedoms and assume risks that many of your fellow citizens never understand. Whether you joined for patriotism, adventure or three hots and a cot, you placed your faith and trust in the government to do right by you, in return. But we all know government is made up of people and that people are flawed. A free press helps protect individuals from the tyranny of institutions.

News organizations like Stars and Stripes often help right wrongs by highlighting problems, exposing them to the public and bringing pressure to bear on those in power to come up with a fix.

But to be effective, news organizations, like political and military leaders, must earn and keep the trust of those they serve. They do that by being reliable, trustworthy, accurate and fair.

These are the things that I will be watching.

You can help.

Share your impressions of Stars and Stripes. Is coverage fair and balanced? If not, why not? Do you detect bias? If so, where and when? Are important topics ignored, or unimportant topics given too much attention? Tell me about it.

Write to me at naegele.tobias@stripes.com or share your comments right here on the website. I look forward to hearing from you.