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American Journalism Review
Pilot Errors  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 1997

Pilot Errors   

The media's Kelly Flinn Coverage focused heavily on the adultery charges against her, downplaying the more serious allegations of lying and disobeying a direct order. The way the story was framed doomed the chances of Joseph Ralston to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff when his affair came to light.

By Tony Capaccio
Tony Capaccio, editor of Defense Week.     

Related reading:
   » The Saga Unfolds
   » The Charges Against Flinn

S TREAKING THROUGH THE CLEAR BLUE YONDER outside Las Vegas late last April, vintage warplanes saluting 50 years of U.S. aerial might mesmerized thousands of spectators gathered to commemorate the Air Force's golden anniversary.

The theme of those halcyon days of April 22-26 was ``Golden Legacy, Boundless Future."

But the celebration was short-lived as 2,100 miles to the east Washington Post editors and reporters finalized two stories highlighting the saga of the Air Force's first female B-52 bomber pilot, 1st Lt. Kelly Jean Flinn.

As depicted by the stories, the first of which appeared on April 28, Flinn, a high-profile, outstanding airwoman who once flew a plane for the Air Force secretary, was being court-martialed for committing adultery with the spouse of an enlisted person, a man who had lied to her about his marital status.

The stories, especially a compelling 86-inch Style section feature, set off a seven-week-long media frenzy over adultery in the military. Followed by similar stories on ``60 Minutes" and in the New York Times, the accounts created an overheated political climate, which contributed in early June to a well-qualified officer, Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, withdrawing his name from consideration as America's top military officer. Before it ended, a reeling Air Force hierarchy offered Flinn a general discharge--a far less harsh penalty than the dishonorable discharge she had faced.

The media and public interest surrounding the cases highlighted the extent to which the reporting of military matters in post-Cold War America has evolved from covering the expenditure of billions of dollars and military strategy to portraits of military life, including the difficulties that have accompanied the integration of gays and women. As an MSNBC analysis put it, ``Reporters and editors, having honed their adultery-sniffing skills in hounding [Gary] Hart and [President] Clinton, have now turned to generals and admirals."

``It's not like Kelly Flinn pops out of nowhere. There's a context to Kelly Flinn," says New York Times Foreign Editor Andrew Rosenthal, the paper's Washington editor when the affair came to light. ``She is one of 20 stories in the last two years about the military grappling with its social issues, not terribly well. She's irresistible as a human interest story." Says Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter: ``When you don't have any real wars to fight, the gender wars become the moral equivalent of war."

But much of the reporting from the Flinn battlefield came up short. In many respects the coverage demonstrated the age-old axiom that in wartime, truth is the first casualty.

A survey of print and television coverage reveals some significant flaws. As her case evolved, much of the reporting was overly sympathetic to Flinn, understated the severity of the charges against her and painted the military justice system in the worst possible light as an unfair, faceless bureaucracy intent on rooting out illicit sexual behavior. The major flaws:

  • Although great emphasis was given to the adultery charge brough against Flinn, there was little clear explanation about what triggers the military's interest in punishing, much less pursuing, the offense.

  • Time and again, the press coverage failed to explain that the act of adultery is not automatically a punishable offense but must be judged under the military's primary courts-martial manual to have caused ``the prejudice of good order and discipline."

    Some of the coverage implied the military, especially the Air Force, had launched a crusade aimed at rounding up adulterers, citing statistics without explaining their full context.

  • The coverage rarely if ever explored whether the Air Force would have prosecuted Flinn had she not made two false statements and disobeyed orders. Failure to address this question reinforced the notion that Flinn was the victim of a dragnet.

  • In fact, a top Air Force official who recommended Flinn for court-martial, 5th Bomb Wing commander Col. Robert J. Elder, says he recommended against including the adultery charge because Flinn's other offenses were serious enough to merit court-martial. But he was overruled by service lawyers who said the charge was needed as part of the prosecution's evidence.

  • Many articles were written in a way that suggested Flinn faced nine-and-a-half years in prison for adultery. In fact, the adultery charge carries a maximum one-year sentence. Lying under oath carries a five-year sentence, not to mention immediate loss of security clearance and the privilege to fly. Fraternization with enlisted personnel carries a maximum two-year sentence, and disobeying a direct order to cut off her affair carries a maximum six-month sentence. A ``conduct unbecoming an officer" charge carries a maximum one-year sentence.

  • As the adultery case involving Ralston unfolded there was little detailed explanation of how his situation differed from Flinn's, much less any robust challenge of the ``double standard" charge--that women in the military are singled out for adultery charges while the military ``looks the other way" in cases involving men--emanating from Capitol Hill.

    But legal experts, reporters and military officials say the Flinn coverage gradually evolved so that, at least during the last three or four days of the drama, the public finally got a good sense of what was at stake. Instead of focusing just on the adultery charge, the media began elaborating on the more serious charges of lying under oath and disobeying a direct order that the Air Force says were the reasons it pursued the case.

    But, in the Air Force's eyes, the change came too late. ``Ultimately some of the press coverage conveyed the scope of the charges, but not until after so much misinformation was out there that much damage had been done," says Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall.

  • Covering the story was made all the more difficult because the Air Force wasn't saying much. In fact, critics say it bears a great deal of responsibility for some of the flaws. Time and again, according to reporters, its top officials refused to talk about the case or forcefully lay out their position.
  • F IRST LT. KELLY FLINN'S ILL-FATED, five- month affair with Marc Zigo, husband of Airman Basic Gayla Zigo (who held the lowest rank in the Air Force), began in mid-July 1996, just weeks after the couple arrived at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.

    Flinn, 26 and single, met Marc Zigo as members of the base soccer team. She began the affair a few weeks after the last of several on-base sexual liaisons with a single enlisted man, Senior Airman Colin Thompson. Flinn says she believed Zigo when he told her that he was legally separated from his wife.

    Twice in July Gayla Zigo complained about the relationship to Zigo's immediate supervisor after finding two love letters from Flinn to her husband and the keys to a house Flinn was house-sitting. The superior warned Flinn to stop seeing Zigo and, according to an official Air Force chronology, the pilot agreed to have nothing to do with him outside the soccer team.

    But the affair continued. Acting on the charges of a male junior officer who at the time was under investigation for sexual misconduct, base security police in November began an inquiry into Flinn's alleged affair.

    In two sworn statements Flinn denied her relationship with Zigo was sexual. Zigo first told investigators that they had had sex on just two occasions, then later acknowledged they had sex numerous times. In early December Flinn was ordered to stay away from Zigo, after Gayla Zigo complained again about contact between the two. In fact, the office that issued the order did not know that Flinn and Zigo were living together. Base officials thought the matter closed until Airman Zigo complained that Flinn had taken her husband home for Christmas.

    It was after her complaint about this incident of apparent insubordination and ``conduct unbecoming an officer" that Flinn's commanders decided to take action, Elder says. Charges were filed on January 28.

    The Flinn saga went public on February 19 when the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB issued a five-line press release in response to separate queries from ABC Pentagon correspondent Mark Brender and the 25,800-circulation Minot Daily News.

    The release simply noted that court-martial charges were being reviewed against Kelly Flinn. Misspelling her name, the release said that ``Flynn has been charged with adultery, conduct unbecoming an officer, fraternization, failure to obey a lawful order and making a false official statement." The alleged adultery involved Zigo. The fraternization--an improper relationship with lower ranking personnel--occurred with her earlier lover, Colin Thompson, an enlisted senior airman.

    Three weeks passed between the time Flinn was notified of the charges and the day the press statement was issued. According to Col. Ron Rand, public affairs chief of the Air Combat Command, that statement would not have been issued without media inquiries.

    ABC didn't follow up on the release, says Brender, because the Flinn case ``had not yet reached critical mass." But it had for Flinn's family and attorney. They were outraged that Flinn was not notified of the release beforehand, a move the Air Force acknowledges was a mistake.

    The initial Flinn coverage in March and early April generated by the press release was straightforward. The Minot Daily News and Associated Press listed all of the charges up front, including lying. The Air Force Times highlighted ``fraternization and adultery," while USA Today mentioned not only the adultery charge but also fraternization and ``disobeying orders to end an affair."

    Unlike accounts to follow, the Minot Daily News, owned by Ogden Newspapers, published a sidebar outlining how ``courts-martial in which adultery is one of the charges are fairly common in the Air Force. Courts-martial for adultery only, however, are quite rare."

    Family spokesman Don Flinn, Kelly Flinn's brother, labels the Air Force release part of a ``smear campaign." Her uncle, John Sullivan, simply says, ``They screwed up." (Kelly Flinn declined to be interviewed pending the release of her upcoming autobiography.) Regardless, the press release convinced the Flinns that they had to craft their own media plan because they anticipated a full-court Air Force assault.

    The press release came at a particularly bad time for Flinn's attorney, Frank Spinner. A former Air Force Judge Advocate, or military lawyer, Spinner was still representing Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson in the Army's Aberdeen sex scandal. He was also gathering information to argue that Flinn's case should be handled as a non-criminal, administrative proceeding, under so-called Article 15, which carries lesser penalties and stigma than a full blown court-martial.

    But the press release and court-martial referral decision were clear signals to Spinner the legal conflict was to widen. ``They [were] going to do everything they can do professionally to destroy Kelly Flinn," says Spinner. ``My philosophy as a defense counsel is `OK, war is hell. You declared war on Kelly Flinn. Kelly Flinn is now going to defend herself.' " By mid-April the Flinns had hired an Atlanta-based public relations firm, Duffey Communications.

    Using the media was a major part of a strategy to build public support for Flinn as her May 20 court-martial date approached (see Free Press, September). With Spinner's assistance the family decided to draft a series of ``message points" Flinn, Spinner and the family would outline for reporters. ``We believed the public would be incensed that Kelly Flinn was being prosecuted essentially for falling in love with the wrong man," Spinner says, ``and that enough public pressure would come that ultimately, we may get this dropped to an Article 15--bring public pressure on the Air Force in such a way that they may finally realize, `We are over-prosecuting.' "

    ``What he did was go public and framed the debate," says David M. Brahms, a private attorney in Carlsbad, California, specializing in military law. `` `You're going to put my girl in jail for what? Adultery? For a lapse in judgment? For a romance?' The press picked that up and ran with it."

    T HE PLAN WAS TO BUILD pressure as the May 20 court-martial date drew near. ``To have maximum impact at the right time, these things had to happen in a certain sequenceÉ," says Spinner. ``When is the most likely time you are going to settle a case?" Taking the story to the Washington Post was his first choice.

    ``Who reads the Washington Post? It's going to go to congressmen and senators," says Spinner. ``We knew ultimately congressmen and senators would be involved. We knew it would get the facts out there about Kelly they would not be able to get otherwise."

    After she met several times with Spinner and had one off-the-record session with the family, Tamara Jones, an accomplished, persistent reporter with the Washington Post Style section, was granted an exclusive. ``Everybody agreed that Jones was a legit reporter who was going to do a fair story," Spinner says. There would be no ground rules. Flinn would be interviewed by herself, without Spinner or her family monitoring her every word.

    The first of Jones' two articles, a 60-inch examination of how the military was cracking down with renewed vigor on adultery-related cases, ran on page one on April 28. The lengthy Style profile ran the next day.

    In the first piece, Post readers were introduced to Flinn as the female bomber pilot who faced court-martial for adultery ``over her affair with a civilian who stated under oath that he lied to her when he claimed to be legally separated from his wife." No mention was made of the more serious charges of lying and disobeying orders. ``The story is about how the military prosecutes people for doing things that are not prosecutable everywhere else," says Post Assistant Managing Editor for Features Mary Hadar. Flinn was a small part, she says, but she acknowledges that a line or two laying out all the charges against Flinn ``would have made it a better story."

    The mammoth April 29 Style piece noted in the fourth paragraph, ``The bottom line is that Lt. Kelly Jean Flinn committed a crime...and she must pay for it.... She could go to prison for what she did. The charge is adultery."

    Buried in the story is a reference to the fact that ``in addition to adultery, Flinn has been charged with conduct unbecoming an officer, making a false statement and fraternization." The article failed to include the charge of disobeying a direct order to stay away from Zigo.

    The story impressed Scripps Howard News Service's Washington Bureau Chief Dan Thomasson. He wrote an impassioned April 30 piece outlining how Flinn faced court-martial ``on charges she had sex with a civilian who was married but lied about it.... She could spend the rest of her life as a convicted felon."'

    Family spokesman Don Flinn followed up with a letter to several hundred friends and business colleagues, seeking support for his embattled sister. He attached the Style piece, noting it represented the pilot's first official rebuttal.

    In the meantime, Kelly Flinn's uncle, John Sullivan, had tracked down a media acquaintance, independent producer Harry Moses, who was working for CBS' ``60 Minutes." `` `60 Minutes,' " Flinn's letter noted, ``is scheduled to air her story...possibly May 11." Sullivan had also alerted his congresswoman, Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), to his niece's problem, supplying the lawmaker with background, including the Air Force press release and the Style profile.

    In early May, message points developed by the family, Spinner and the Duffey PR firm took final shape in time for the anticipated media onslaught. ``We determined this was a very complex story," says Don Flinn, a strategic business planner. ``If we tried to tell the whole story every time, people would get worn down and miss what the key points were."

    sThe Flinn messages would be heard repeatedly in upcoming interviews: The Air Force has not been victimized by the actions of Lt. Flinn, the military overreacted in this matter. Mistakes were made in judgment, but no offense has been committed that warrants ending a career or public humiliation. Kelly just wants this matter to be addressed so she can return to flying. Without the adultery issue, there would be no other charges.

    It was with this last point that Spinner and Flinn were most successful--although it's one the Air Force could have rebutted most easily had its officials entered the fray more vigorously.

    On May 11, ``60 Minutes" and the New York Times weighed in for the first time on the case with pieces sympathetic to Kelly Flinn. According to Morley Safer, ``The truly serious charges against Lt. Flinn were precipitated by the biblical sin of adultery, which, in the military, is a crime."

    It was only later in the ``60 Minutes" piece that viewers learned ``the Air Force eventually charged Kelly with adultery, failure to obey an order, making a false statement and conduct unbecoming an officer and, quote, a gentleman, unquote." A week later in a ``60 Minutes" update correspondent Steve Kroft reminded viewers Flinn faced court-martial charges ``of having an affair with a married civilian...."

    The New York Times' Elaine Sciolino wrote that Kelly Flinn's ``charges including adultery and insubordination have left her facing not only dismissal but a prison sentence of up to nine-and-a-half years...."

    Deeper in the accounts, the Times provided a more complete listing of the charges to include making a false statement. Its coverage and that of the Chicago Tribune and Atlanta Journal and Constitution were some of the most balanced and nuanced of the major news organizations, and prominently listed the lying charge. The Constitution actually listed the adultery charge last.

    But the sympathetic pattern persisted in a May 16 piece in USA Today by Patrick O'Driscoll. It listed the full charges but portrayed Flinn as something of an innocent victim. Flinn didn't want the fight, Driscoll wrote. ``But when the Pentagon went public last February with a news release listing its charges against her, she replied in the court of public opinion."

    An equally kind May 16 Knight-Ridder story by military writer Michael Ruane downplayed the lying and disobedience charges, instead informing readers Flinn was to be court-martialed ``on adultery and other charges stemming from a romance she had with a married man who told her he was legally separated." Later it said, ``Flinn was knocked off the pedestal...because she fell in love."

    Some television accounts also parroted the theme. In ``NBC Nightly News' " first major Flinn piece, on May 16, correspondent Jim Avila told viewers, ``Put simply, she slept with a married man. He claimed he was legally separated." The piece included an Air Force spokeswoman saying the real issue was good order and discipline. Avila says an editorial decision was made by him and his editors that adultery seemed to be the Air Force's main emphasis, but later coverage included the charges of lying and disobedience after the Air Force elevated their importance in press statements.
    Click here for the second half of this story.



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