February 24, 2012

Last week was Ernie Gates’ first as the new ombudsman of Stars and Stripes, the Defense Department-funded newspaper charged with offering independent coverage of the U.S. military community.

Gates brings with him decades of experience, including a long stint in leadership roles at the Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va., a place with a strong military connection. Unfortunately for Gates, he also comes to the role with the knowledge that his predecessor’s term was marked by strong disagreements with the paper’s leadership and the Pentagon.

Those disagreements culminated in a scathing farewell column from former ombudsman Mark Prendergast, who completed a three-year term in January. He voiced a litany of criticisms about how he was treated during his tenure, raised concerns that the ombudsman role was being weakened, and warned that “Stars and Stripes’ standing as an independent source of news is threatened by a wrongheaded government response to the WikiLeaks disclosures that raises the specter of censorship.”

Prendergast is an associate professor of journalism at St. John’s, and a former journalist for The New York Times, New York Daily News and The Washington Post. He also worked as a part-time correspondent for the Army newspaper, V Corps Guardian.

In a university release announcing his appointment as ombudsman back in February 2009, Prendergast outlined his vision for the job:

As I view it going in, not only am I a monitor of journalism practice but also of journalists in two disparate respects. I will be the leading advocate of their right to do their job according to professional standards, and I will hold them to those standards, as well. That unique double challenge appeals to me.

His work related to that double challenge culminated in a column perhaps unlike any farewell from a departing ombudsman.

“My work has irked the paper’s masthead as well as the Pentagon,” Prendergast wrote. “My credentials, character, abilities and even sanity have been assailed in comments to me, to staffers and beyond. I have been threatened with legal action once I no longer have the protection of this office.”

All in all, it makes for one of the most acrimonious departures of an ombudsman in recent memory, if not of all time.

When contacted for this article, Prendergast was initially hesitant to comment on the record, but eventually offered some detail. Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer provided a comment by email regarding the structure of the ombudsman position, and how Gates was hired. He did not respond to a request to offer his view on why Prendergast left with such a negative view of the paper, nor did he respond to a follow-up phone call. Melvin Russell, acting director of Defense Media Activity, the Defense Department entity that operates Stars and Stripes, also didn’t return a phone call. (The ombudsman reports to Russell in the chain of command.)

As for Gates, the new ombudsman, he said in an email he was aware of the concerns raised by his predecessor, but declined to comment on whether they gave him pause in taking the job.

“I’m strictly looking forward,” he said.

So what happened to cause Prendergast to take such a negative parting shot about his tenure at the paper? And what about Prendergast’s concerns about the ombudsman role itself?

To get to the bottom of this story, first follow the awards.

First, there was the Rendon Group series

In 2009, Stars and Stripes won a Polk Award for a series of stories about the military’s use of a PR firm, Rendon Group, to analyze the work of journalists in Afghanistan.

The paper was understandably proud of the recognition, noting in its story about the award that judges called the package “a riveting group of stories on how the [military] used a public relations company to profile journalists and steer them toward positive coverage of the war in Afghanistan.”

“Less than a week after the Stars and Stripes stories were published, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan cancelled the profiling program,” the paper reported.

But even before the award was announced in mid-February, Prendergast was already digging into the series. He found the reporting wanting, the article’s claims overblown.

Here’s the lead paragraph of what would be the first of three Prendergast columns about the Rendon Group stories:

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.

In another column he wrote:

Not only because of what it reported but because of what it left out, it is my view that the Rendon articles provided readers with inadequate bases for a number of the articles’ most serious assertions and fostered impressions that were either inaccurate or unsupported by what was published.

Each column included rebuttals from the editor who oversaw the series. Stars and Stripes editorial director Terry Leonard also published a statement in response to Prendergast’s first column on the series.

“Stars and Stripes’ investigation of the U.S. military’s program to compile profiles of reporters and attempt to steer their coverage of the war in Afghanistan was consistently even-handed, accurate and balanced,” Leonard said.

Prendergast’s blunt and critical assessment of the paper’s most celebrated recent work created a rift between him and the paper’s leadership. It didn’t help that things were already on edge thanks to an August 2009 column from the ombudsman.

“I’d say to you, as others have said to me, that things started to go south after an Aug. 8, 2009, column, ‘Editors ought to keep their readers in the loop,’ ” Prendergast emailed. “But it is also fair to say that the Rendon columns resulted in an unsalvageable estrangement.”

They also brought in the hardware.

Those columns, along with other work of his from 2010, won Prendergast a Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists. He also won’s SPJ’s First Amendment Award for a collection of work that included items from his winning Sigma Delta Chi entry.

That other collection of award-winning work represented the second part of the “double challenge” identified by Prendergast when he took the job. If the Rendon Group series was him trying to hold the paper accountable for its work, his writing about WikiLeaks represented an attempt to defend the paper’s independence and First Amendment rights.

But rather than endear him to the masthead at Stars and Stripes, it further alienated the ombudsman from the paper.

How WikiLeaks reaction affected Stars and Stripes

In December 2010, Prendergast wrote a column about WikiLeaks and the military’s reaction to the organization’s data dump of classified information. The ombudsman warned that, “The editorial independence of Stars and Stripes and its readers’ right to news free of censorship are being threatened by an overly broad and misdirected response to the Wikileaks debacle” from the Defense Department.

Of concern was a directive from Defense Media Activity “that access to classified or sensitive information from any personally owned or publicly available computers also constitutes unauthorized access and is reportable to security personnel.”

Prendergast was told this applied to the journalists at Stars and Stripes.

“Putting reporters and editors under strictures intended for keepers of the nation’s secrets contradicts the fundamental purpose of journalism: to seek information, not avoid it,” he wrote.

After submitting the column to his copy editor at the paper, he became concerned that the column’s publication was being delayed due to the critical nature of its content. Prendergast detailed his concerns in two updates on a blog post.

The column was eventually approved as written for publication, but Prendergast withdrew it until he “could get it in writing that the independent ombudsman’s right to publish expeditiously and without interference was unambiguous, secured and immune to ‘editorial oversight,’ as Publisher Lederer had affirmed in a 2009 organization newsletter.”

That dispute led to a joint statement affirming the ombudsman’s role and independence, which you can read at the bottom of this column.

In spite of his difference with the Pentagon, Prendergast said that, “While we had strong disagreement on some issues, the military and Pentagon officials with whom I dealt were unfailingly cool and professional, and I will always respect them for that.”

He didn’t, however, volunteer a statement about his view of the paper’s leadership.

Prendergast’s final column

These battles laid the groundwork for a less than amicable departure. But there was one final disagreement yet to occur. This time it focused on the hiring of Prendergast’s successor.

Yet again, the awards seemed to have at least a tangential role to play. The search committee that chose Prendergast included a member of the Society of Professional Journalists — the same organization that later honored Prendergast twice for the very work that caused frustration on the part of the paper’s masthead.

But as Prendergast noted in his final column, no one from SPJ was on the new search committee that would choose his successor. Was that related to the SPJ awards?

No, said Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer. He said the paper regularly used different external associations to choose ombudsmen.

“The selection processes for each Ombudsman have been different,” he said by email. “Though there have been no hard-and-fast rules, structures or procedures, the last couple of search committees to identify and hire a new Ombudsman have included experienced members of the commercial newspaper media industry.”

Prendergast’s column also noted that rather than being offered a three-year contract as he was, the new ombudsman received two years and an option for a third. This was one issue new ombudsman Gates acknowledged in an email reply.

“I get the problem with that, and I’ll be trying to resolve it in relatively short order,” he wrote. “In the meantime, I’ll live with the appearance that the third year is hanging out there, and I won’t mind being judged by how I do the job.”

Prendergast also wrote it was troubling that “language in ads for the position suggesting it will be weakened by curtailing the ombudsman’s ability to report to Congress unilaterally, as we have for two decades, and by cutting the three-year term to two with, I understand, only the possibility of a third.”

Lederer said the role was in no way being diminished. Here’s part of his response:

The Stars and Stripes Ombudsman role is unique in the media industry in concept and practice. This role is important to both the readers of Stars and Stripes and to the organization. The primary function of the Ombudsman is to watch over the ability of Stars and Stripes to conduct First Amendment journalism. I don’t believe any actions have been taken to diminish that role and in many respects it is stronger than when it was first created in 1991. There have been no restrictions placed upon the Ombudsman’s ability to interact with Congress in regard to issues effecting Stars and Stripes’ journalism. The reporting avenues and relationships remain the same as they have been for the last 20+ years.

That would be the end of the saga, if it weren’t for a commenter who went by the name Igor2121. After Prendergast’s final column went online, Igor2121 posted a comment that went after Prendergast with what appeared to be an insider’s level of knowledge, not to mention a heavy dose of vitriol:

Even when you were on the right side of an issue where the editorial independence of Stripes was a serious issue, you managed to tick off nearly everyone with your ham-handed approach, your lack of understanding about the institutions with which you were dealing and your lack of personal relationship skills. Never was there so clueless a person serving the role of Ombudsman at Stars and Stripes.

Prendergast responded in the thread, saying that if Igor is indeed a Stars and Stripes employee he needed to identify himself. Otherwise he would be in violation of an internal policy.

Igor2121 shed the pseudonym, coming out as Rick Oleszewski, whom Prendergast identified in the comment thread as “an executive on the business/administration side of the Washington headquarters of Stars and Stripes.”

In interviews, Prendergast declined to comment on the paper’s leadership, but he did offer this about Igor2121:

Igor2121’s ad hominem attack, ostensibly the work of a nondescript Stars and Stripes executive who by his own account barely knows me and whom I could not pick out of a one-man line-up, calls to mind Brando’s memorable reproach to his character’s would-be assassin in “Apocalypse Now”: “You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.”

Given the history and tone of Prendergast’s column, it’s not surprising to see a spirited debate erupt in the comments section.

“I hope that he will insist on the longstanding authority and prerogatives given the ombudsman by law, regulation and practice and that he will reject any attempt to weaken the post, whether formally or informally, whether by official act or want ad. Congress will stand with him on that, I believe, as will professional organizations, former ombudsmen and former staffers,” Prendergast said of his successor.

For his part, Gates said he’s excited about his new role, and about meeting the dual roles of holding the newsroom to a high standard and ensuring the paper’s editorial independence.

“Holding the newsroom accountable for  ‘news values’ — in the sense described by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel or Jack Fuller or various professional standards of newsroom ethics — meshes critically with protecting the newsroom’s independence, which is essential to its credibility,” he said. “My plan is to be vigilant in both roles.”

Correction: The original version of this post included several misspellings of Mark Prendergast’s last name. Three of the incorrect spellings were “Prendgast,” “Prendersgast” and “Pendergast.”

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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