We certainly live in some tumultuous times, with what appears to be a full-blown culture war erupting between various factions in a highly polarized society. With social media added into the equation, Americans are thrown together into one big pool—one that is often filled with sharks—while the design of said social media apps has the effect of chumming the water. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I think you get the point. In light of the controversy surrounding fake news, partisan politics, our long-running War on Terror, and my position as editor-in-chief of a news website, I thought I might take a stab at explaining how certain editorial decisions are made.
Unlike many mainstream news outlets, NEWSREP is staffed almost entirely by military veterans. Our readers share a lot in common with us, and even if they are not veterans themselves, our audience tends to be overwhelmingly pro-military. Since we are former military, this gives us a bit of a home-field advantage when reporting defense news. However, it also incites the ire of many on social media, as we are perceived as part of a fraternal brotherhood of veterans, and reporting anything that reflects poorly on the military is often viewed as a betrayal of sorts.
There is an entire genre of military-themed news websites today. We were the first on the scene back in 2012, but others have followed. Many of them only include positive coverage of the U.S. military. Others only report on veteran-specific issues such as PTSD or VA benefits. Still others wave the American flag and upsell their readers patriotic T-shirts. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things; however, it isn’t what we do. The military contains some of the absolute best that America has to offer, but also some of its worst. The military is not inherently good, but it is made good by the honorable service of the people in it.
As a writer and an editor, I would much rather be reporting on the positive stories. There are many of them and our war-fighters deserve the recognition. I try to work on these types of stories whenever possible. However, I am also the guy who gets the phone calls, text messages, and emails about the dark side of the military. Veterans and active-duty soldiers (and sometimes their spouses) have reached out to me about all sorts of tragedies and cover-ups that have not just ruined careers, but destroyed lives. If you turn those people away and refuse to take their calls, then you are not really running a news site and you are not really a journalist. At that point you are more like a DOD public affairs officer. The reality is that our journalists are not in the military anymore and are not here to wave the flag, act as a cheerleader, or carry the water for the Pentagon.
There is a growing segment of the population that dismisses any bad news as fake news. The truth is often uncomfortable and some would rather turn away from it. In other cases, the public has the right to be skeptical about journalism, as journalists don’t always get it right. During the last few years, especially, we’ve seen an increasingly hysterical media obsessed with pushing out “takes” on various stories every five minutes rather than actually reporting. This creates a vicious circle in which journalists and readers get increasingly frustrated with one another.
Speaking of controversial stories, I didn’t intend to break any news about Chief Eddie Gallagher and his upcoming court-martial this coming Monday. It seemed to me that there were already numerous major mainstream media outlets covering the case, and there was no need for me to jump in and offer additional “takes” on the story. Then I was approached by a Special Forces source who wanted to tell me about a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. He informed me that Gallagher was attached to his team for sniper support, and he said that Gallagher had killed an unarmed farmer during the operation.
This information had been alleged previously in a leaked NCIS report, the information provided to investigators by a soldier who, in my opinion, was unreliable. However, this new source coming to me was on the ground for the operation in question and was very reliable. I began pushing on the story, verifying additional information. One piece of information came from another witness, a fellow Navy SEAL, who claimed to NCIS investigators that Gallagher had told him that he killed an unarmed farmer in Afghanistan. The information I was being provided had not been reported previously.
In order to do my due diligence, I called Gallagher’s defense attorney and asked him if he would like to comment on the story. He did, and told me that the story was entirely made up. When I wrote the story, I made sure to include this statement so that readers could hear both sides of the story and make their own conclusions in an informed manner.
I had, of course, expected backlash when I published the story. I was not disappointed. This is part and parcel to being a journalist in 2019. Sometimes you have to make hard calls and report news that will surely be unpopular to many. We do this routinely and embrace the challenge. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of any democracy.”
Eighteen years into the War on Terror, we are far past “supporting the troops” and “spreading awareness.” Those days have come and gone. Our military is frayed, our foreign policy in pieces, and new threats are looming on the horizon. Now is the time when we need to challenge ourselves to be better and to do better as a country.
We do this by asking the tough questions—no matter how uncomfortable they make us.