Thursday, April 08, 2010

Late to the Game

Does this story, posted today at, seem familiar?

A wing commander was ousted from his post at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., in late March for showing favoritism toward a subordinate officer, according to base officials.

Col. David “Iron” Orr, who oversaw the 66th Air Base Wing, was relieved of command March 26 by Lt. Gen. Ted Bowlds, commander of the Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom and the senior officer at the Materiel Command installation.

“I took this action based on an assessment which concluded that Col. Orr had exhibited undue favoritism related to a subordinate officer, and as a result, failed to provide a complete and candid assessment to me, the center commander,” Bowlds wrote in a letter e-mailed to Hanscom personnel.

Readers of this blog learned of Colonel Orr's dismissal on the day it happened--almost two weeks ago. We also reported that Orr was the fourth Air Force wing commander to be fired since last October, part of the service's mandate for increased accountability among senior personnel.

The real question is why it took Air Force Times so long to get the story. As noted in our post--and the more recent newspaper article--Lieutenant General Bowlds announced Orr's dismissal in an e-mail to Hanscom personnel. We got a copy shortly after it was distributed to thousands of military and civilian staffers, so learning of Colonel Orr's firing didn't require any investigative reporting. Ditto for confirming the letter's authenticity with our contacts at the base. It's hard to believe that the largest independent newspaper covering the Air Force couldn't get around to reporting the story until today.

It's a quality that constantly frustrates readers of the Times, particularly those who have any type of media background, or those who are aware of big stories that go under or unreported. In fairness, we should note that Air Force Times has produced some first-rate reporting (see Mike Hoffman's coverage of the Minot nuclear mishap and the investigations that followed). Mr. Hoffman led the military press in exposing the accidental transfer of nuclear-tipped missiles from the North Dakota installation to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, an event that led to the dismissal of several senior officers and a complete overhaul of the Air Force nuclear enterprise.

But in other cases, the paper is late out of the chocks--when it moves at all. Witness their weak coverage of the Jill Metzger case. Major Metzger, you may recall, is the Air Force personnel officer who went "missing" for three days during a deployment to Kyrgyzstan in 2006. When she resurfaced (with a new hair color and dye on her hands), she offered an improbable tale of being kidnapped by locals, who tried to alter her appearance. Somehow, the petite Major Metzger was able to overpower her captors and dash more than 10 miles to freedom (did we mention that she is a champion marathon runner?)

The incident caused a diplomatic stir between the U.S. and a key ally in Central Asia. Relations were further strained when Kyrgyz authorities determined that Metzger had apparently sought an abortion from a local provider, then missed the bus back to her duty location at Manas AB. Facing potential AWOL charges, local police believe she fabricated the kidnapping story. A separate probe by the Air Force (reportedly) arrived at a similar conclusion. She failed a polygraph and refused to let medics take a blood sample after her return.

Readers learned of those critical developments not through Air Force Times, but from, which pursued the Metzger scandal with admirable tenacity. The website was also the first to report that senior Air Force generals told security forces personnel to "forget about what they saw" when Major Metzger was repatriated, and they followed the officer's subsequent transition to a temporary retirement (with full pension) based on her traumatic experiences in Kyrgyzstan. was also on hand when Metzger made an amazing recovery and competed in the Air Force marathon.

Obviously, no media outlet gets the scoop on every breaking story. But Air Force Times has no real competition in its particular market niche (save Stars and Stripes). Sure, there are lots of local papers near military bases, but their coverage is often lackluster and handled by reporters who have never served in the armed forces. At the other end of the spectrum, specialized publications and web sites like Aviation Week do an excellent job on technology and policy issues, but they offer little reporting on key personnel moves, like the one at Hanscom.

Why is the Times' coverage so uneven? Some members of the staff--like their counterparts at local papers--have no experience in aerospace or defense issues, so they must learn the military beat on the job (no easy task). Additionally, there are editorial decisions that inevitably affect coverage. I've never heard of a Times' editor spiking a story, but their coverage tends to concentrate on developments in their "back yard;" the paper is based in Springfield, Virginia, so issues at the Air Staff tend to get more play that events at remote bases that don't involve the loss of life, or serious damage to Air Force property.

Our advice to the folks at Air Force Times? First, get more of your staff into the field--and on a more frequent basis. A recent series from Afghanistan was enlightening, and there are more stories at bases across the Air Force--just a matter of digging them out. Secondly, we'd encourage them to hire more reporters with a military background, though journalists with that type of experience are hard to come by. It certainly helps if a new reporter covering the Air Force has some familiarity with the subject.

Air Force Times styles itself as an independent voice covering the service, and that's a very important job, indeed. But to fulfill that mission, the paper needs to be more aggressive and familiar with its subject. Missing the firing of a wing commander by two weeks isn't a journalism calamity. Still, it makes you wonder about the other stories that are barely reported --or missed altogether.

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