By: Todd Shields

Publisher Pulls Patriot Story, Staffers Cry Censorship

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by Todd Shields

WASHINGTON – The venerable Stars and Stripes newspaper gets a
Pentagon subsidy, but strives for editorial independence from the
military it covers closely. The resulting tension at times erupts
into clashes, most recently in a dust-up that left a story spiked,
the staff roiled, and a top editor gone from his job.

The trouble started when the paper’s staff in Europe got wind
that a Patriot missile battery might be sent from Germany to
Israel to counter a possible threat from Iraq.

As the newspaper’s Aug. 31 deadline approached, Publisher Thomas
E. Kelsch got a call from the American Forces Information Service
(AFIS), the U.S. Defense Department office that oversees the
55,000-circulation daily. Kelsch went to the AFIS headquarters in
suburban Washington, where officials told him that publishing an
article about the possible Patriot deployment would reveal
classified information. Kelsch couldn’t get back to Stars and
Stripes in downtown Washington before deadline. He discussed
the story by telephone with an editor, then ordered the paper
to hold the piece – even though he had not read it.

Soon, The Washington Post wire put out its staff-written article
about the Patriots containing the same news as the story that
was spiked by the publisher. Kelsch again vetoed the use of the
Stars and Stripes piece, but OK’d The Washington Post article
for publication. Although Stars and Stripes policy prohibits
running staff stories containing classified military information,
the newspaper may print such stories that have appeared elsewhere.

The next day, Executive Editor David Offer, 58, resigned. A
longtime friend of Kelsch, Offer four months earlier had stepped
down as editor of The Newport (R.I.) Daily News to take the
Washington job. He bought a house the night before quitting.

‘I resigned because I was told to remove a story from the newspaper
without any explanation other than the assertion of my publisher
[that] it was top secret and lives could be lost,’ Offer said.

Offer said he knew the military might spike a Stars and Stripes
story, but rarely and ‘only in circumstances any editor – civilian
or military – would support.” He found otherwise in the Patriot
flap. ‘It was the kind of censorship no self-respecting editor
could accept,’ Offer said.

In an interview, Kelsch defended spiking the story – although he
said that security conditions prevented him from providing the
details behind his reasoning. He said he hopes the incident will
lead to a loosening of constraints on Stars and Stripes and its
predominantly civilian staff.

Stars and Stripes, which circulates in the U.S. military community
abroad, gets about one-third of its budget from the Pentagon.
Military officials can order stories held under a guiding agreement
that also calls for ‘a free flow of news’ without ‘news management
or censorship.’

That agreement is being revised. Kelsch said he hopes that the new
rules will bar the military from censoring the paper, which would
leave officials to plead their case with Stars and Stripes, just
as they do with other publications.

‘There’s always going to be tension,” Kelsch said. ‘The more
freedom … the better we’ll be able to do our job.”


Todd Shields (tshields@editorandpublisher.com) is the Washington
editor at E&P.

(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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