Full disclosure: Former Idaho Statesman political reporter Heath Druzin, now with Stars and Stripes in Iraq, is a friend. I sometimes covered the Idaho State legislature while sharing the reporter’s room with Druzin and others. I consider him a talented and thorough reporter with the integrity and attention to the truth we expect from all journalists.
The mideast edition of Stars and Stripes, “the independent news source for the U.S. military community” has a story today on one of its own reporters, Heath Druzin. Druzin left the Idaho Statesman last year to report from Iraq.
“Officials said Stripes reporter Heath Druzin, who covered operations of the division’s 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team in February and March, would not be permitted to rejoin the unit for another reporting tour because, among other things, he wrote in a March 8 story that many Iraqi residents of Mosul would like the American soldiers to leave and hand over security tasks to Iraqi forces,” says the story.
“Despite the opportunity to visit areas of the city where Iraqi Army leaders, soldiers, national police and Iraqi police displayed commitment to partnership, Mr. Druzin refused to highlight any of this news,” Major Ramona Bellard, a public affairs officer, wrote in denying Druzin’s embed request. Bellard was also unhappy that Druzin repeatedly asked Army officials for permission to use a computer to file a story when a blackout period was in effect. She said he “behaved unprofessionally.”
A 3rd Brigade commander, Col. Gary Volesky, also said that Druzin “refused to answer questions about stories he was writing.” But Druzin’s boss at Stars and Stripes, Terry Leonard, said reporters aren’t required to answer questions like that from commanders.
Stars and Stripes appealed the refusal to embed Druzin with his old unit all the way to the Pentagon, but got nowhere. “The denial of the embed constitutes an attempt at censorship and it is also an illegal prior restraint under federal law. … The military cannot tell us what stories to write or not write,” wrote Leonard in the appeal.
The Army’s list of allegations about Druzin’s reporting are refuted by Leonard.
“Under the embed rules and the congressional mandate of editorial independence for this newspaper, it does not fall under the authority or competence of the command to decide if we do a story, what story we do, or what angle we take in writing the story,” Leonard wrote in his appeal.
Thomas E. Ricks, who covered the military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008, responded to the Stars and Stripes report on his blog, ForeignPolicy.com:
According to the newspaper, Stripes reporter Heath Druzin’s major sin was the “refuse to highlight” the good news in Iraq, as perceived by Volesky’s public affairs officer. Also, Volesky asserts, Druzin asserted that he had the right to refuse to answer questions about stories he was working on. To be clear: Volesky has the right to ask, and Druzin does indeed have the right to decline to answer. It’s a great country.
The Best Defense’s counsel: Col. Volesky needs to get a little perspective here. You may not always like what a reporter writes, but you are putting your life on the line to defend his ability to do it. Don’t go picking and choosing reporters. Invite Druzin back in, have a heart-to-heart with him, and move on.
Military Reporters and Editors President Ron Martz, himself a former Iraq embed, blasted the Pentagon decision in an e-mail to Editor & Publisher. ”The reasons for barring Heath Druzin from this embed seem specious at best. Army officials in general and the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team appear to have violated both the spirit and the letter of the embed guidelines that Military Reporters & Editors and many other journalists have worked so diligently to implement since long before the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003.”
“These recent actions by the commander of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team raise the troubling question of just how committed the Army and the 1st Cavalry Division are to allowing journalists to do their jobs and tell the true story of the situation in Iraq and the efforts being made by our men and women in uniform. MRE urges you to take appropriate action to rectify this specific situation and to implement whatever measures are necessary to ensure that this does not happen again either in this unit or in any other unit in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
There is no question that military news is managed in different ways than nonmilitary. Certain reports that don’t make it to CNN like future troop movements and locations of ships are obvious. Though they are briefed by the military and then sign agreements, good reporters don’t need to be told what not to reveal – (except, of course, the infamous Geraldo Rivera, who revealed tactical information about an upcoming attack in Iraq in 2003.)
In rare instances, military news must be withheld in order to save lives.
But one of the Army’s problems with Druzin is his “failure” to report something they thought he should have reported – and that’s the kind of manipulation that doesn’t fall under any of the categories above. Reporters and editors make judgments every day on what they think is news and what isn’t. Training, experience, and individual outlook is applied in making those decisions, and that’s what Druzin did.
In my opinion, it’s a serious matter when the delivery of accurate and timely news is denied to the American people who always deserve the truth in accordance with our founding principles. We are funding the war with our tax dollars, which makes us even more deserving of the information. Druzin is a professional trained to do exactly what he is doing, and his efforts to be accurate should not be impeded, nor his priorities manipulated.