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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, January 10, 2011

WikiLeaks Tensions In US Gov't Funded Media

Stars and Stripes is owned and published by the US Defense Department under authority of Congress, but the newspaper, aimed primarily at a military audience overseas, is by law editorially independent.

The First Amendment protections for Stars and Stripes include an independent ombudsman whose primary responsibility is to ward off any efforts at government “news management or censorship” in the news organization’s daily print editions and Web site.

Stars and Stripes has been around for awhile: it was founded by Union soldiers stationed in Missouri during the American Civil War, so its journalistic traditions and independence go back a considerable way.

Mark Prendergast, a member of ONO, is the current Stars and Stripes ombudsman, a part-time position with a three-year, non-renewable term. He recently found himself in an unexpected conflict with the editors over a column he wrote about the government response to the WikiLeaks disclosures.

WikiLeaks is an independent group of freelancers whose purpose is to disseminate hitherto secret information about US policy by sharing it with a few prominent news outlets and by putting the information on its website.

The effect of these leaks has been highly controversial, and even damaging to US interests, and the Obama administration has been vigorous in trying to minimize the damaging effects of the leaks.

Prendergast wrote about one aspect – new rules that barred Stars and Stripes journalists from even looking at classified material that WikiLeaks had put into the public domain. He posted his column on his blog page, but when he also submitted it for publication, was told that senior management was holding it back “subject to editing,” contrary to all past practice.

After protests and negotiations, Prendergast reached an agreement with the publisher affirming that the ombudsman operates without managerial or editorial oversight, and the column was published.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to the publicity generated by the online version of the column, the Pentagon withdrew the reporting restraints, though a reissuance of some form is expected.

Kudos to Mark for keeping Stars and Stripes true to its mission and to its readers.

But Stars and Stripes isn't the only quasi-governmental media organization to feel pressure in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures.

The Voice of America (VOA) is a Congressionally funded broadcaster that has had its share of controversy about whether it succumbs to government pressure, or whether it is an independent source of information that gives a government perspective as part of its objective approach to the news.

VOA does not have an ombudsman, but recent events show that it might benefit from having one.

Recently a memo to all staff was sent out from  VOA's Deputy General Counsel, Paul Kollmer-Dorsey,  warning that any WikiLeaks material found on any VOA computer might subject the user to prosecution. The memo further stated that all reporting on WikiLeaks had to be approved in advance by senior VOA management.

The memo states in part that "(VOA) employees or contractors shall not access classified material unless a favorable determination of the person's eligibility for access has been made by the... Office of Security, the person has signed an approved non-disclosure agreement, the person has a need to know the information, and the person has received contemporaneous training on the proper safeguarding of classified information and on the criminal, civil, and administrative sanctions that may be imposed on an individual who fails to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure."

While the VOA has a right to determine who should have access to classified information and how it might be disseminated, VOA seems concerned with the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosures on the administration, rather than on informing its listeners and viewers. 

VOA might look to Stars and Stripes as a more effective and credible way to proceed in handling this story.

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