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The publisher and ombudsman of Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense "authorized" newspaper, have reportedly come to an agreement regarding ombudsman editorial independence. (Credit: Stars and Stripes)

iMediaEthics wrote earlier this week about controversy at the “Department of Defense authorized” (but independent) newspaper Stars and Stripes.

The ombudsman, Mark Prendergast, had reported that the Defense Media Organization, which “includes” Stars and Stripes, had banned the viewing of WikiLeaks by Stars and Stripes journalists. That memo has since been retracted.

The paper reports an “average daily readers number about 420,000.” The About Us section on its website states:

Stars and Stripes exists to provide independent news and information to the U.S. military community, comprised of active-duty, DoD civilians, contractors, and their families. Unique among the many Department of Defense authorized news outlets, only Stars and Stripes is guaranteed First Amendment privileges that are subject to Congressional oversight

In the past few days, the ombudsman, Prendergast, and the publisher, Max D. Lederer, Jr., have reached an agreement under which Prendergast’s columns will be published again.

But, Prendergast still objects to some of Stars and Stripes editorial director Terry Leonard’s claims.

Prendergast’s column on the Department of Defense restraints (see an unedited version on his blog here) will be published Dec. 27, he wrote to iMediaEthics via e-mail.  A note will be appended to the column briefly describing the “dispute over ‘handling'” of the column.

Prendergast also stated that his columns were to be edited and that he objected to this.  In response, the editor, Terry Leonard, claimed in an editor’s note that Prendergast’s (and his predecessors’ as ombudsman) columns had always been edited for “spelling, grammar, space, propriety and legality.”

iMediaEthics asked Prendergast about Leonard’s claims that the columns have always been edited.  Prendergast denied Leonard’s statements, stating “The ombudsman column has never been edited in the commonly understood sense, no matter who has been ombudsman, no matter who has been editorial director.”

“That is to say that while an editor may make changes in the copy, they are subject to the approval of the ombudsman, who may reject them, as I occasionally have.”  That statement negates Leonard’s claim that he couldn’t recall any time Prendergast had an issue with a suggest revision.

Leonard had written to iMediaEthics via e-mail Dec. 23, emphasis ours: “Everything that goes on our opinion page is edited for spelling, space, grammar, propriety and legality. Mr. Prendergast’s columns have always been subject to that editing. To my memory, he has never previously complained about it. I believe it was always with his consent. The editing of ombudsman’s columns for spelling, space, grammar, propriety and legality has always been in place as far as I know.”

While Leonard wrote in an editor’s note that he’s not been responsible for any delay or edit to the column (Leonard wrote: “I have never inserted myself into the process of editing the ombudsman’s columns.  At no time did I or any other senior editor block publication of his column, delay or change a date of publication.”), Prendergast argued otherwise in an e-mail to iMediaEthics.

Prendergast told iMediaEthics that he turned in his column to the copy editor in the morning of Dec. 17.  According to Prendergast, the copy editor told him the column would be published Monday, but later in the day, backed up the publication date indefinitely.  The copy editor reportedly said Leonard was responsible for the “decision to hold the column for an indefinite period of time ‘subject to editing.'”

Therefore, Prendergast said he doesn’t “understand” Leonard’s statement about not being involved in editing, as “withholding from publication is editing, especially when the reason given is ‘subject to editing.'”

“This was a bad decision that he really cannot explain or defend,” Prendergast opined.  “But facts is facts. He blocked publication. I have yet to hear a good reason. And he can’t deny that.”

Prendergast also included an “accord” to which he and the Stars and Stripes’ publisher and he reportedly agreed. Prendergast emphasized that the publisher “affirmed” that Leonard’s blocking of publication should not and cannot happen again.

“The accord between me and the publisher makes clear that what Leonard did was wrong and bars him or any other editor at Stars and Stripes from ever attempting such mischief again,” Prendergast explained.  The ombudsman column is only to be proofread, not edited, Prendergast wrote.

The agreement, which Prendergast explained he will be calling an “Ombudsman’s Charter” and will be published online and in print soon, states that:

  • “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 requests for corrections and any efforts that might infringe on the organization’s right to operate free of censorship or news management or compromise professional standards.”

Prendergast, in a follow-up e-mail, explained that he doesn’t consider, or refer to, the incidents of the past week at Stars and Stripes to be censorship.

He explained by email: “I use the term sparingly and narrowly. I apply it mostly to government authorities seeking to withhold information from people usually but not always under their control and entitled to that information because the authorities are afraid of the information itself.  That wasn’t the case here, as far as I can tell. I don’t know why Leonard did what he did — just that he shouldn’t have.”

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“Even though Stars and Stripes is owned by the government and Leonard works for the government, I don’t believe this ill-advised decision to yank my column from last Monday’s paper was censorship of any kind. It was just an editor’s bad decision  — one he had no right or reason to make.”

iMediaEthics believes in a broader definition of censorship – one that would include blocking publication.

iMediaEthics has written to Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer and Stars and Stripes editorial director Terry Leonard.  We will update with any response. We received an auto reply that Lederer will be out of the office Dec. 27 through Jan. 2 with a redirect contact, Gail Jones. We are sending our inquiries to Jones.

UPDATE: 12/27/2010 1:23 PM EST:  Terry Leonard, editorial director of Stars & Stripes has responded to our e-mail inquiry.  Posted below are our questions with his responses.

iMediaEthics:  Mr. Prendergast passed on an “accord” between him and the publisher of Stars and Stripes.  Were you involved in this accord, and/or do you consent to it?

Terry Leonard:  “I don’t believe the document you mention rises to a level of an accord. The provisions of this accord are what we already did in regards to editing the ombudsman. The publisher, in consultations with me and with my agreement, agreed to put our requirements in writing. Now the ombudsman has written guidelines, but they are the same guidelines we already followed.”

SJ:  Mr. Prendergast stated via e-mail that he views the decision to block publication of his column as a “bad” one.  He further stated that his columns  as ombudsman were not to be edited – just proofread, and that you were directly responsible for the blocked publication.  Do you have any comment to that?

TL: “His charge that I blocked his column is not true. He been told it is not true by me, by the publisher, by the opinion page editor. No column of his ever has ever been blocked by me or anyone else at Stripes. For him to say so is categorically untrue. It is pure demagogery. Not only have I not blocked his column, I have never blocked anyone’s column or blog. His columns and blogs have never required an editor to get any approval from me or any other senior editor. My only involvement in this question was to remind the opinion page editor that the column had to be edited (for the usual spelling, space, grammar, propriety and legality) and not simply cut and pasted into the newspaper because it had already appeared as an unedited blog. I have said from the beginning that his columns are edited for spelling, space, grammar, propriety and legality only. We have never sought revision in his opinions. His columns, despite his remarks to you, will continue to be edited for spelling, space, grammar, propriety and legality. Nothing has changed.”

SJ: Mr. Prendergast claimed that he has not accepted revisions suggested previously for his columns, whereas you stated “To my memory, he has never previously complained about it. I believe it was always with his consent. ” Do you have any comment?

TL: “This is absurd. I’ve seen his e-mails praising the opinion page editor for his catches and agreeing to changes. I don’t know of a single instance where the made a change the ombudsman had not agreed to. I can’t imagine how that would be possible when the ombudsman is screaming so loud and long now when nothing has changed.”

SJ: Has there been any update on when the Dept of Defense will offer updated advice regarding WikiLeaks?

TL: “I do not know when to expect anything new from the DoD on WikiLeaks. It is looking to put out guidance, not just an opinion of a single lawyer. These things take time. I certainly don’t expect it before early in the new year.”

CORRECTION AND CLARIFICATION12/27/2010 11:38 PM EST:  The word “all” was inadvertently left out in our e-mail exchange with Terry Leonard (corrected in the above update).  The iMediaEthics question

Mr. Prendergast claimed that he has not accepted revisions suggested previously for his columns, whereas you stated “To my memory, he has never previously complained about it. I believe it was always with his consent. ” Do you have any comment?

should read

Mr. Prendergast claimed that he has not accepted all revisions suggested previously for his columns, whereas you stated “To my memory, he has never previously complained about it. I believe it was always with his consent. ” Do you have any comment?

We have written to Terry Leonard asking if he would like to update or change his response to our question and will post any response.

UPDATE: 12/28/2010 9:35 AM EST: Leonard responded to our updated question [Mr. Prendergast claimed that he has not accepted all revisions suggested previously for his columns, whereas you stated “To my memory, he has never previously complained about it. I believe it was always with his consent. ” Do you have any comment?]

He wrote:

“To my knowledge no suggested revision for his column has ever been changed without his approval. If it had been, I’m sure he would have complained loud and long. It has been our policy that revisions are sent back to him for his approval and I have never heard a complaint about that process in the two years of his tenure. I know for certain that no senior editor has ever edited his copy or made a revision. The only time a senior editor as even suggested a revision is when the ombudsman himself has requested that we look at something and make suggestions. That has only happened a couple of times during his tenure.”

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One Response

  1. IntheKnow says:

    "I do not know when to expect anything new from the DoD on WikiLeaks. It is looking to put out guidance, not just an opinion of a single lawyer. These things take time. I certainly don’t expect it before early in the new year."

    You should find out if that "lawyer" is Stripes’ publisher Max Lederer.

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