Marching orders for reporter

Published 5:17 am Monday, March 17, 2003

By By MIKE VOSS, Contributing Editor
The Fayetteville Observer has brought home a reporter and photographer team from Kuwait after its reporter became engaged to a major in the 82nd Airborne Division unit she was covering.
Tanya Biank, 31, the reporter, and photographer Tracy Wilcox were covering the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment in Kuwait. Fayetteville Observer executives claim the action was made voluntarily. However, the Raleigh News &Observer stands by its report that Col. Karl Horst, chief of staff for the 82nd Airborne Division asked Biank to leave because she had become a distraction.
"After Biank, became engaged to Maj. Mike Marti, military officials told her that she was no longer cleared to move forward if the unit goes into combat," Charles Broadwell, editor and publisher of the Observer, told The Associated Press on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Observer's newspaper included a commentary piece about the incident. The commentary was written by Broadwell.
"We decided that her status with the Army could compromise our ability to cover the unit during wartime, and that's why we decided that she and photographer Tracy Wilcox should return home," wrote Broadwell. "We are still reviewing the situation, and there's not a lot more I can say right now. Other publications and media outlets have heard about the story, so you may be reading or hearing more about it elsewhere."
Broadwell also noted the News &Observer version Saturday. "That was not our understanding in Fayetteville, and it was not why we decided to bring our reporter-photographer team back home last week," Broadwell wrote.
"We made the decision to bring them back home," Broadwell told the Washington Daily News on Sunday. "We were not informed that the Army wanted her to leave."
Broadwell said Biank's return was not prompted by the Army, and that he had been unaware the Army wanted her to leave.
The newspaper continues to investigate the incident, Broadwell said.
Anne Saker, a reporter with the News &Observer, told the Washington Daily News on Sunday that her newspaper learned of the incident from its reporter-photographer team in Kuwait. Saker said reporter Jay Price and photographer Chuck Liddy called the News &Observer last week and mentioned that Biank and Wilcox had left Kuwait.
Saker said the N&O team contacted the 82nd Airborne's public affairs officer in Kuwait to ask about Biank's return home. The team was told by the 82nd Airborne's chief of staff the Army asked Biank to leave Kuwait because she had become a distraction because of the engagement, Saker added.
Saker also said the N&O team reported that Biank had been seen eating many meals with Marti, and the couple were also seen exchanging signs of affection.
Broadwell told the AP on Saturday that Observer top editors knew Biank was dating a soldier but didn't know they would be in Kuwait together.
They became engaged after arriving in Kuwait. Broadwell said his editors knew the soldier was in the unit Biank was covering but didn't think it would affect her performance.
"This needed to be addressed," Broadwell said Saturday. "It raises serious questions about credibility and conflict of interest."
Mike Adams, assistant managing editor of the Fayetteville Observer, said "We cannot comment on that" when contacted by the Washington Daily News on Sunday and asked what, if any, disciplinary action may be taken against the reporter. Adams is a former managing editor of the Washington Daily News.
The Observer plans to send another reporter and photographer to Kuwait, Broadwell said.
"Tanya has an excellent track record here for us, covering things near and far," Broadwell said, adding that she has traveled to Vietnam and the Balkans for the newspaper.
According to the Observer's Web site, Biank and Wilcox traveled with the 325th to Kuwait on Feb. 15, and their last story from Kuwait was published March 11.
Attempts to reach Biank on Sunday were unsuccessful. According to the Fayetteville Observer's policy on conflicts of interest, "news room employees are expected to comply with department guidelines which incorporate the Sigma Delta Chi code of ethics."
The Sigma Delta Chi code, in part, states: "Journalists and their employers should conduct their personal lives in a manner, which protects them from conflict of interest, real or apparent. Their responsibilities to the public are paramount. That is the nature of their profession."
In an interview with the Washington Daily News on Sunday evening, Paul T. O'Connor, a journalism instructor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discussed the matter. He acknowledged he did not know all details surrounding the incident.
"I think it was an Army decision more than anything. Once they asked her to leave, what else was there for the newspaper to do but bring her home?" O'Connor said.
O'Connor said journalists must be free from even an appearance of conflict of interest.
"We have to be Caesar's wife. We've got to be purer than the driven snow," O'Connor said.
Biank probably could have done an excellent and unbiased job of covering the military in Kuwait and the war with Iraq, should that war begin, O'Connor said. To avoid possible conflict of interest, her return home is probably a good move, whether it was an Army decision or the newspaper's decision, he added.
"Knowing nothing more than the AP story, I think the conflict of interest for (Marti) was much greater. The Army did the smart thing by getting her out of the line of fire so the soldier could do his job," O'Connor said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.