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American Journalism Review
Pilot Errors...Continued  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   October 1997

Pilot Errors...Continued   

By Tony Capaccio
Tony Capaccio, editor of Defense Week.     

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

T HE RISK OF LETTING FLINN SPEAK uncensored to reporters could have backfired if the Air Force unloaded its heavy artillery. But it didn't. The more important issue, it says, was protecting Flinn's privacy.

``Whenever a criminal prosecution attracts media attention," says Air Force Secretary Widnall, ``the government is somewhat at a disadvantage, as compared to the accused, in getting the story out, because of the government's various obligations." Widnall explains her service's reluctance because it ``must be concerned with protecting the accused's right to a fair trial, avoiding improper command influence and protecting privacy rights."

The Air Force decided to move forward with the court-martial because Flinn's conduct was judged too serious for less severe discipline. ``The adultery in and of itself was not the issue," says Elder, the commander who recommended a court-martial. ``The issue was she was using her rank to undermine somebody else's marriage. That was what the good order and discipline problem was." The truly serious charges that disqualified her from flying, says Elder, were the false statements, disobeying a direct order by continuing to see Zigo and conduct unbecoming an officer when she took him home for Christmas.

``In the Air Force, a false statement is grounds for losing your security clearance," Elder says. He recommended against including the adultery charge but was overruled by Air Force lawyers. Elder was not allowed to talk to the press as the controversy erupted.

Given the vacuum, it's not hard to see how coverage was skewed in Flinn's favor. Reporters, producers and editors all strenuously defend their respective pieces as fair reflections of the case as they understood it. The Post's Tamara Jones says that a detailed reading of the Air Force's investigative file indicates it was primarily interested in whether the pilot had committed adultery with Zigo.

``Those charges resulted from Kelly Flinn sleeping with somebody she was not supposed to sleep with," Jones says. ``She had to commit the crime in order to make a false statement about the crime." The issue dissolves into a circular argument, says Jones. ``It's up to the reader or the Air Force to say what is the most important charge. I'm not going to characterize them. Both my stories say clearly what she is charged with."

Elder disagrees. ``Basically, the facts were right, but the way they were put together was done to guide you down a path that would lead you to believe the Air Force was an evil monster, and if you're a woman and had sex in the military we are going to get you."

The Style piece also misconstrued a chronology of events that should have explained that Gayla Zigo made at least four complaints to security police between July and December that 1st Lt. Flinn, her superior in rank and status, was trying to steal her husband. It was Gayla Zigo's complaints, say top Air Force officials, that drove base officials to take action against Flinn.

For Moses, the independent producer for ``60 Minutes" and others, the main Flinn storyline was a no-brainer. ``She was the first female B-52 pilot. She was their poster pilot and she was being charged with adultery. That's all you need to know," says Moses. He insists the full charges were not buried, much less downplayed. ``If you look at the intro you will see the word `precipitated.' We said that in the first 25 seconds. Absent the adultery, the lying and disobedience would not have happened. So I think it's bogus to say we ignored it."

Elder thinks that on the whole the ``60 Minutes" broadcast ``was fairly balanced" but portrayed Flinn as a victim and ``we were out to get her. That was far from the truth."

USA Today's O'Driscoll says he tried to fully convey that the case involved more than adultery, but acknowledges ``the thing that captured everyone's attention, and I don't think just that of the news media, was that there was this rather ambiguous case of adultery, and yet a career was being dangled in the balance." He adds, ``In most of our stories, quite frankly, we didn't put as much emphasis early on the non-adultery charges."

For the Times' Rosenthal, the issue is of little importance. ``A lot of that stuff, that `It's not adultery, it's lying and discipline,' that stuff is grafted on the case after it's started," he says. ``They weren't investigating her for being undisciplined. They were investigating her for adultery."

M EANWHILE, CONGRESS GOT INTO THE ACT. Before the drama ended in May, Kelly Flinn had attracted allies in Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), as well as vocal members of the House Women's Caucus who argued that Flinn was the victim of a gender-based double standard, in which women were treated more harshly for sexual crimes than men.

On May 20, the same day as her scheduled court-martial, Lott stirred up the press when he said the Pentagon should ``get real" about sex in the military. Prefacing his remarks by saying he had not ``gotten into the details of what is involved here," the majority leader opined how ``at a minimum" Flinn should receive an honorable discharge. Rep. Nita Lowey had already become a vocal supporter of Flinn.

 But by mid-May, many were questioning the media's treatment of, and the public's reaction to, the Kelly Flinn case. ``The troubling part for me, very late in the game, people who were knowledgeable about military justice got brought in by the media," says Catholic University law professor and former Air Force lawyer Michael Noone. ``For the first week or two in the Flinn case, the [media] people that I talked to were clueless. They were passing their knowledge on the case from what they had seen on `60 Minutes.' "

According to military legal experts, much of the reporting was hampered because reporters seemed totally unfamiliar with the military justice system. ``I don't think the media knew how to cover this," says the Chicago Tribune's national security writer, Michael Kilian, a military veteran. After reading the first Washington Post story, he says, ``I thought it was simply a case of adultery. I investigated it and found it wasn't."

Kilian wrote that ``far more serious than the adultery charge, which carries a maximum sentence of only a year in jail, are charges of disobedience and fraternization.... The most serious charge against Flinn is lying to superiors, which carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment."

Atlanta Journal and Constitution military writer Ron Martz, a military veteran whose coverage listed the adultery charge last, says adultery ``didn't strike me as the kind of charge where the Air Force would have taken somebody they had been holding up as one of their stars and say, `You committed adultery.' "

Military legal experts interviewed said the media's early coverage of the adultery issue was at best confused. But it evolved.

``I thought the media was sort of awful in the beginning," says Marine Corps Reserve lawyer and Maryland ACLU Managing Attorney Dwight Sullivan. ``The dynamics don't seem to have been understood early.... It didn't capture the nuances."

``Adultery is only an offense if the commander thinks that by committing the adultery good order and discipline are affected," says Catholic University's Noone. Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, says he tried to get across to reporters that ``it's quite uncommon, really quite uncommon, for someone to be prosecuted purely for adultery. When you see adultery on a charge sheet there is something else there as well. That something else is usually what has gotten them worked up."

In fact, many stories trumpeted the fact that last year the Air Force tried 67 cases of adultery without saying that all but one included other, often more serious offenses.

CNN's military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre was one who bucked the spin, noting in one broadcast, ``While the publicity has focused on adultery, which she admits, Air Force officials say this is a case where it wasn't the crime as much as the cover-up that got Flinn in real trouble." Other reporters were equally skeptical. ``The case became a cause c*l*bre because she went public and was very, very successful in portraying herself as sort of a victim of the Air Force `sex police,' " CBS Pentagon correspondent David Martin said on PBS' ``Charlie Rose" show.

Helen O'Neill, an AP national writer who was shuttled from a story covering the Lego toy empire to Minot for Flinn's looming court- martial, says, ``It was clear to all of us that the adultery charges were not the most serious, at least in the eyes of the military, and AP stories reported that.... But I think in the eyes of the public, it was the adultery charge that stuck."

O'Neill had a point. A CNN/USA Today/ Gallup poll taken after the Air Force's decision to grant a general discharge indicated 47 percent of those polled felt Flinn was being treated unfairly.

The Los Angeles Times weighed in on May 22 with a thoughtful assessment of the Flinn-as-victim view. Paul Richter and David Savage wrote that while politicians and the public appeared to be taking Flinn's side, ``an examination of her case suggests that her claims of unfair treatment are still far from proved."

The reporters outlined how ``a step by step analysis of Flinn's case shows that she ignored repeated warnings from at least three Air Force officials to stop her affair."

Richter explains he came across some former prosecutors who said, ``There's a difference between the way the Air Force handles adultery as a free-standing infraction and when it is combined with other transgressions." Equally thoughtful was a May 23 Chicago Sun-Times analysis by Adrienne Drell that explored how ``military laws and regulations are a world apart from those found in broader society." Television coverage also got tougher. NBC, which initially failed to mention the non- adultery charges against Flinn, featured them prominently during the days leading to the Air Force's May 22 decision to grant Flinn a general discharge. CBS, PBS' ``NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and ABC also reported during this period that the charges against her were ``adultery, lying and disobedience."

``I found the change in the media's tone to be fascinating," says military attorney Richard Black. ``I didn't expect it. I thought they would just be out to pound away on the Air Force."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former Los Angeles Times media writer, says by the time the Flinn case was settled, ``I ended up being more sympathetic to the military high command than I did for Kelly Flinn. That came from some- place."

T HERE SEEMS NO DOUBT THAT Spinner's legal and media strategy worked. Spinner believes that without the sympathetic coverage, ``Kelly Flinn could have gotten an [unfavorable] dismissal, might have gotten some jail time and would have had a conviction the rest of her life.... There is absolutely no question about it." Says the Times' Sciolino, ``The Air Force had built Kelly Flinn into the poster girl so it was inevitable that there would be extraordinary coverage of her fate. But if there had been no or little coverage, it's conceivable she would have been court-martialed, and if she asked to resign she probably would not have gotten better than a discharge under other than honorable conditions."

But it wasn't only Flinn who was affected by the media's obsession with the adultery charge. Gen. Joseph Ralston, who was the leading candidate for the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also caught up in the fray. Between Flinn's general discharge and June 5, when the Washington Post and New York Times broke the news about an affair involving Ralston, two Army generals were forced to leave the service because of adultery or improper conduct with women not connected to their military duties.

One, Maj. Gen. John Longhouser, commander of the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, retired after an allegation that he had an adulterous affair with a civilian five years earlier while he was separated from his wife. Longhouser was unlucky enough to be assigned to Aberdeen last fall before a major sex scandal at the base came to light. Because the general had authority to convene courts-martial against accused sex offenders, Defense Secretary William Cohen defended the retirement. In words that would come back to haunt him, Cohen said, ``We have very high standards that we insist upon for the military. It's another example of someone who failed to measure up to those standards." The incidents ``left some officers wondering whether the bar of morality has been raised too high," wrote the Baltimore Sun in its story on Longhouser.

Just as Flinn's case ended, Washington Post Pentagon reporter Dana Priest got an irate call. It came from a woman who alerted her to Ralston's affair 13 years earlier with a civilian intelligence analyst when he was a student at the National War College, and at a time when he was separated from his wife.

The call and two weeks of reporting led Priest to the most significant development of the story--1987 divorce papers filed by Ralston's wife in Hillsborough County Circuit Court in Tampa. The court papers alleged that the affair continued on and off over four years during periods when the Ralstons were separated. It ended in 1988 when their divorce was finalized and Ralston married a third woman.

The Flinn uproar ``certainly was the reason why after all these years the woman who called me called me," says Priest. ``Flinn touched a nerve that I still think is underestimated."

Separately, New York Times reporter Philip Shenon called one of Cohen's top aides shortly after Memorial Day asking if Ralston had been the subject of an Inspector General inquiry or any other inquiry because of any affairs, says Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon. ``We went through a very extensive check of his records and found nothing," Bacon says. There the matter rested until June 4, when Post reporters called seeking comment from Ralston about what they had learned from their own digging.

At the time, Ralston was on an official trip to Kazakhstan. Bacon says he decided Cohen would brief the two news organizations on his view of the affair, which he did during a hurried 20-minute session on June 4. Ralston asked that Cohen not get into great detail. In explaining his view that the 13-year-old affair should not disqualify Ralston's nomination, Cohen told the Post and Times reporters he wanted to ``draw a line" against a ``frenzy" of sexual misconduct allegations. ``We need to come back to a rule of reason instead of a rule of thumb," Cohen said.

Although the Times had no details of the affair, Bacon invited the paper to the Cohen briefing. ``We didn't think it was fair to leave the New York Times out," Bacon says. But his fairness backfired because until Cohen's briefing, the Times had no intention of pursuing any allegations against Ralston, says Rosenthal.

``Our policy is we don't write about people's sex lives unless there is some compelling public interest," he says. ``We said we'd go to the Pentagon and ask, `We have heard the following rumor.' I felt Ralston's private life was an issue only as it related to Pentagon and military policy."

Rosenthal and Priest say Cohen's earlier statement about Longhouser made Ralston's situation fair game. ``What Cohen said made it relevant and important to write about because he was trying to draw the line," says Priest. ``This one came in an already intense context--the ongoing story of sexual relations in the military and obviously it was in the context of an overheated discussion over Kelly Flinn."

After talking with the Post and Times, Cohen made a series of calls to Capitol Hill outlining the situation. Associated Press Pentagon reporter Susanne Schafer was tipped to the calls, talked to Cohen and broke the story.

Schafer offers another reason why news of a 13-year-old affair was relevant. ``The situation of a potentially adulterous chairman advising a president who has had big problems in this area...this maybe is not the type of appointee President Clinton would have come forward with."

Once the AP, Post and Times accounts broke, the Pentagon found itself under siege, fending off charges from Capitol Hill that it was holding Kelly Flinn to one standard and Ralston to another.

The Ralston saga was played prominently. ``General May Not Survive Adultery Flap," said the Orlando Sentinel's front page. ``Secretary of Defense accused of double standard on adultery," said the Cleveland Plain Dealer on page one. ``Military policies on sex seem ill-defined, at best," said the Cincinnati Enquirer's front page. The New York Post told readers: ``Pres Grows Cool On Cheatin' General." ``Pentagon accused of double standard," said a front page Arizona Republic story from Knight-Ridder.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Communications Director Dennis Klauer says the Ralston story was a classic case of pack journalism. ``People were afraid of getting scooped so people were exceedingly aggressive in attacking and getting involved in the story."

Some news organizations, notably the Post and AP, minimally outlined the differences between the Ralston and Flinn affairs. But nobody called into question the charges heard loud and clear from the House Women's Caucus, as well as from New York Democratic Reps. Lowey, Carolyn Maloney and Charles Schumer. ``If Gen. Ralston stays, then what happens to Kelly Flinn?" Lowey asked.

But the two cases had some very important differences that got lost in the frenzy. The Ralston affair began in 1984, when then-colonel Ralston was a student at the National War College.

The War College affair was well known among students. His lover was a civilian. But then-war college commandant and now CNN military analyst Retired Air Force Gen. Perry Smith, who knew the two were friends but didn't know about the affair, says that while unsavory, the affair did not violate good order and discipline at the school.

``We tried to take more time [in a second story] to say if these are similar, but we didn't come right out and say ourselves whether this is similar or not because I don't think that is our role," says Priest. ``We laid out in several graphs her situation and juxtaposed it with his situation."

The Post and other news organizations let Rep. Maloney slide with her widely reported claim that ``if you're a friend of the Secretary of Defense and you've had an affair, you're in." In fact, Cohen told reporters that he knew Ralston all of four months.

``Ralston was hit, not because he did this, but because he became a symbol for a double standard that I don't think existed," says Bacon, who tried long and hard to make distinctions during press briefings after the story surfaced. ``I think the press was deficient in explaining the differences between these cases. The focus was Kelly Flinn.... It was characterized as about adultery and not about lying and carrying out orders. So we may have lost this point weeks ago."

But Richter of the L.A. Times thought the Pentagon's explanations seeking to distinguish among Flinn, Longhouser and Ralston ``didn't sound all that convincing. You had these rules. They should apply to everyone. It seemed like they were really trying to split hairs to get him off the hook."

AP's congressional defense writer John Diamond feels that the timing of the Ralston revelation made his situation ``untenable. It was hard enough for the public to understand what was happening to Kelly Flinn, except that she was being charged with adultery. When a four-star general came up two weeks later who seemed to be accused of the same thing, it just didn't compute."

Ralston's chance for nomination eroded with every story. Significantly, most members and staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the crucible where he'd be questioned, knew how the Flinn and Ralston cases differed. It was reconciling the differences between how Cohen handled Ralston and Longhouser that was proving difficult.

And the controversy over all the adultery charges made the situation impossible. ``Absent Flinn, it would have been easier to place the relationship he had in a clearer context," says a senior Pentagon official involved in the nomination. ``Absent Flinn, this would have been a two-day story."

When Ralston took himself out of the running he issued a statement, taking special pains to note that the ``public discussion surrounding my potential nomination blurred the facts in a number of cases and gave the appearance of a double standard regarding military justice." Says Bacon, ``It was conscious commentary on the press coverage that had not done enough to make the distinctions."

Military experts and the regulations themselves indicate that adultery by itself doesn't automatically trigger punishment. To the extent the press failed to point this out early and often in the Flinn coverage, they did not aggressively counter the Flinn spin.

To the extent the service failed, it created the climate that cost Ralston--one of its own--America's top military job.

``It's a question of whether we convinced them the cases were different," says then-Air Force Undersecretary Rudy DeLeon. ``The measure is that the climate was such that Gen. Ralston withdrew his nomination. So obviously, we were not successful."

For the Times' Sciolino there is little doubt: ``Had it not been for Kelly Flinn, Joe Ralston probably would have been chairman of the Joint Chiefs today. The spotlight would not have shone on that aspect of his life."



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