How 1 Newspaper Got it Wrong

I achieved a major personal milestone this week by getting an opinion editorial published in the Baltimore Sun. It had been a personal challenge since learning how to write op-eds from the immensely talented Mike Long. Two of the things he taught is that an op-ed is only as good as the timing of the news cycle and the writer’s connection to the issue.

Last week Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl pled guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The judge, Army Col. Jeffrey R. Nance scheduled his sentencing to begin this week. I sensed an opportunity to link some of my experiences with a topic that might tie to the news cycle just enough to get an op-ed carried in a city newspaper.

In consultation with a faculty mentor at Georgetown University, I submitted an article titled “A Soldier’s Perspective on Bergdahl” to the Baltimore Sun.

The editorial contains open-source material that has been widely available and openly discussed for over three years.

The reason for writing the op-ed was to achieve a personal goal, and practice the skills that I am learning as a Georgetown Fellow. The points of the article were:

  1. There has been a great deal of political rhetoric associated with Bergdahl’s case. This is unfortunate.
  2. Some form of influence caused a burden of secrecy that Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers felt forced to carry under penalty of punishment.
  3. The news focus has overlooked that Bergdahl’s actions affected many people across the military.
  4. Once the trial concludes, the military should provide the public with closure on this case by releasing all documents associated with Bergdahl’s desertion, capture and return.

I originally thought this editorial would run for one day and fall to the back annals of the Baltimore Sun’s server room, and recycling bins around the city. I was taken completely by surprise and horror to read how the New York Post interpreted my words in a piece titled “Bergdahl comrade says his US return was ‘PR campaign.’”

There are some key facts that everyone should know about my position.

  1. I believe it was right to bring Sgt. Bergdahl home. We never leave a soldier behind, no matter the circumstances.
  2. I believe that Sgt. Bergdahl has the same rights to a fair trial as every American.
  3. I love the Army. Being a soldier is my life’s calling.
  4. I think the Army is a great organization.
  5. Most military leaders do the right thing. Most who make a mistake are trying to do what they believe is right.
  6. We become even stronger when acknowledging that there have been times that certain decisions were made that were not the right way of doing business.

The writer for the Post made incorrect claims about my position.

First, I did not personally serve with Sgt. Bergdahl. Second, I do not believe his return was a “PR campaign.” I feel that a communication effort was made by senior officials at the time to highlight Bergdahl’s return in a manner that would reflect positively. That is a thought not out of the mainstream. Beyond that, the Post’s article interspersed dramatic language between quotes from my original editorial that make my thoughts appear to be much more sensational than they actually are.

Finally, my call to action was in the same spirit of Lt. Gen. Dahl’s position regarding the release of Bergdahl’s files, and recent comments from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dunford. In the most recent high-profile military story regarding four soldiers killed in Niger, Gen. Dunford said this week that the Department of Defense owes the affected families and lawmakers more information. Just as our own public affairs regulation states, the best way to maintain the public confidence is through accurate and timely release of information.

When I saw the Post’s article, I was in a complete state of shock. I have been quoted many times in news mediums over the years. I have never seen my quotes so deliberate taken out of context. I immediately reached out to mentors at Georgetown and fellow public affairs officers. They assured me that a sensational medium choosing to misuse my words is not something that I am to blame for.

I have been so blessed to have an amazing professional support network through these last couple of very trying days. From a mentor in the Pentagon who believes it is a good thing that I am taking this opportunity as a Georgetown Fellow to experiment with editorial writing, to readers across the nation who have taken the time to write to me directly.

”Just read your article, and GOD BLESS YOU for your courage and integrity.”

“You are a man of honor and courage.”

From a retired Army Colonel “I applaud your article and want you to continue telling it from the mountain.”

“Thank you for speaking the truth and being honest. I wish we had more guys like you in Congress.”

“HOOAH – a well-balanced position in your article Sir.”

“You will no doubt become a true statesman.”

I have also received great support from fellow officers, even public affairs officers. In my times of self-doubt this week, they encouraged me. They reminded me that one sensational editor does not diminish the soundness of my piece. They offered sound advice on how to improve going forward, while supporting what I have done.

Going forward, I will look for more deliberate word choices that convey my thoughts, while making it more difficult for someone to quote me out of context. But I must accept that as long as I am willing to add my voice to the news cycle, on duty or off, there is always risk. Innovators push through risk. I want to be counted among them.

The easy answer is to decide not to write in the editorial space again. I think that’s the wrong answer. More people have read my messages this week than any of the most well-planned, deliberate pieces that I have been involved with in over 20 years. There is an audience for thought leadership from the fortunate few who are able to wear the uniform. The public no longer wants authenticity. They demand it. Who is a more authentic messenger than the U.S. service member?

I’ll leave you with one last thought. I talked today with an executive in a well-known international communication firm that leads the communication and crisis response efforts for multinational companies that many of you have regular transactions with. He told me that rather than worrying about what has happened this week, I should wear it as a badge of honor.

 

Copyright 2017 Chase Spears All Rights Reserved

 

 

2 thoughts on “How 1 Newspaper Got it Wrong

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