Paper in Military Town On the Spot, As Atrocity Charges Grow

By: Sarah Weber

?It?s been a rough month for the 101st,? wrote Chantal Escoto of The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, Tenn., on June 25, and it only got worse this week.

The Chronicle devotes considerable local coverage to Ft. Campbell, the nearby military base that is home to the 101st Airborne Division. In late June, it was already dealing not only with the horrific deaths of two soldiers from the base, Pfc. Thomas Tucker and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, but also with the case of four soldiers accused of murdering three Iraqi detainees. Since then, the Clarksville community has received more stunning news. On July 3, a recently discharged soldier from the 101st, Steven D. Green, was arrested in North Carolina on charges of raping an Iraqi woman and killing her and three members of her family. Others may soon face charges in this case.

For weeks now, The Leaf-Chronicle has faced the unenviable challenge of covering these alleged crimes while acknowledging the sensibilities of their large military readership.

Executive Editor Richard Stevens is upfront about the need for his paper to acknowledge its core audience. ?This is an above average patriotic community because of Ft. Campbell?s influence,? Stevens told E&P. ?We estimate 150,000 to 160,000 people [are in our community], and about a full third of those have direct Ft. Campbell ties, whether they are veterans, military dependents, active duty soldiers, etc.?

Because of this audience, will the Chronicle self-censor when covering the alleged atrocities in order to avoid further besmirchment of the troops? image or upset their families with gruesome details? Both Stevens and Escoto, a military reporter and former embed who was featured on E&P?s December 2005 cover, agree that withholding information in order to please their audience is against their beliefs and the Chronicle?s standards.

?Just like The Washington Post and The New York Times write for their audience, we also write for our audience,? says Escoto. ?But if you look at the stories that we run, we do put the information out there. We would never hold a story because we think it might be offensive because for the most part, people want to know.?

Escoto writes what the Chronicle calls ?an interactive journal? for the paper?s website. Titled ?101st Notebook,? it most recently featured her thoughts on the recent murder charges and deaths. In the aforementioned June 25 column, Escoto expressed her anger at the deaths of Menchaca and Tucker: ?These guys were supposed to be within view of other soldiers in their unit, but instead they were being checked on via radio..I hope?for the families? sake?this tragedy is thoroughly checked out.?

Escoto also addressed ?the 101st?s next obstacle?: the murder charges against the four soldiers who allegedly killed three Iraqi detainees. ?Many soldiers will tell you?on the record?that the rules of engagement and proper use of force must always be adhered to and the accused soldiers should be punished to the full extent of the law, if found guilty,? wrote Escoto. ?But off the record, most will tell you those guys have been given a bum rap. This is war. Not everything is black and white.?

More recently, Escoto addressed the rape and murder charges in an titled ?Troops Face Two Syndromes From Trauma? (July 2): ?The war crimes against the 101st Airborne Division are stacking up as 20,000 soldiers try to serve out their time in Iraq honorably,? she wrote. Grappling with the question that many in the military community have been asking, Escoto continued, ?It?s difficult to say why all of a sudden these charges are being brought up so late in the division?s deployment.?

The responses to Escoto?s last column came swiftly, echoing the national cry that the soldiers not be tried in the press and are innocent until proven guilty. Responding to her comment about war crimes, she reports, ?people have said, ?What do you mean stacking up? They haven?t been tried.??

But in general, negative response has focused on her support of the troops. ?I know that some people think that I?m leaning too much towards the soldiers because I?m a military reporter,? Escoto told E&P. ?But the military is part of my readership, and we try to and we want to balance things out. I don?t think [my support of the troops] would sway my ability to look at something objectively if somebody?s going to come forward with information.?

The Leaf-Chronicle also dealt with a difficult balance when it decided to print an interview with a mother of one of the accused soldiers. Before the article went to print, Stevens spoke of the slippery slope that accompanies testimony of loved ones: ?[The mother] is making the appeal that, ?My son couldn?t do that.? You have to be careful with that?mothers are going to defend their sons.?

When asked if she felt that interview was problematic, Escoto demurred: ?I think that emotions in a story are always good, and if the mother of the accused wants to speak out, then we want to give them an avenue for that. Obviously she?s got a lot of blunt comments in trying to guard her son.?

Stevens provided E&P with a different sort of example. On June 29, Pfc. Menchaca was buried in his hometown of Brownsville, TX. The Chronicle ran an AP photo that day of Menchaca?s young wife Christina grieving. Stevens spoke with his news editor before running the photograph, and weighed the appropriateness of its placement on the front page.

Though an outsider might find it compelling, Stevens explained just how potent its impact could be on the Chronicle?s readers: ?That?s the kind of photo that is not accepted well, especially by other military spouses. They tend to become upset because it?s such a tangible fear.?

But the anticipation of such a reaction ultimately did not cause Stevens to omit the photo. ?War includes grief,? Stevens said. ?We try not to be overly challenging of our audience?s sensibilities. But from time to time, I think we have to. To use an image that doesn?t sanitize the war.?

Nonetheless, one does have to be aware of the newspaper?s audience. ?We?re in a sort of conservative part of the world [in Clarksville, Tenn.],? said Stevens. ?People tend to not want to alienate the military community. But I think the newspaper is right down the middle. We try to be.?

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