Guest Paper: Air Force Times

Friday, October 7, 2011
Front (and second front) pages of the publication

As an Air Force retiree (and a current worker on the local military base), I sometimes pick up a copy of the Air Force Times, a weekly periodical geared exclusively towards that service and its members.  Published by the Gannett Government Media Corporation, the journal is one of company’s 12 military/defense-centric journals that focus on news and information generated within or applicable to those specific audiences.  Copies are available for purchase in various base outlets as well as the adjoining town’s lone newsstand that carries it for the convenience of its high population of former Air Force members.  Its continued appeal current and potential readers is that it caters to the entire Air Force community (active duty, guard/reserve, and retired members) and can follow them over a decades-long career right up through their ‘golden years’.  

Focusing on journalism, one interesting technique this publication employs is the use of reversing the printing orientation to 'divide' the physical product into two distinct sections.  In this particular edition, 37 of the 48 pages is devoted to service- and military-related news and information and are read as one normally reads an English language tabloid (page 1 is the front page and interior stories are accessed by turning the pages from right to left).  To read the ‘Off Duty’ section (one that caters to recreational activities), the reader simply flips the paper over (keeping the closed edge to the left) and proceeds to browse those articles (numbering starts at page 1, in line with the publisher’s ‘separation’ illusion).  The papers also come in a sealed plastic bag that supposedly protects them and keep their loose contents or occasional supplements whole throughout the distribution and vending processes. However, I am guessing they use it to keep individuals from reading them for free and not purchasing their own copies.

With such a strict content charter, the Air Force Times treats its readers to stories that the wider population has no interest in or would not understand its significance.  For example, this week’s edition has a story about a non-commissioned officer stationed in Colorado who was punished for falsifying her waist measurement portion of a physical fitness test earlier this year.  While a non-military reader would scratch their head about the newsworthiness of this item, those who are currently serving (or have served) understand the major significance of a someone making a false statement as well as the harshness of the penalty (reduction in rank and 14 days of hard labor without confinement).  

The item that attracted me to buy this particular edition was the Obama story about his plan to reduce healthcare and retirement benefits.  The use of the bold red lettering for “OBAMA TARGETING” in the headline text as well as a photo of the president with an unusually stern expression on his face creates an uneasiness which would entice prospective readers to buy the paper and to read that story (the plastic bag mentioned above forces purchase over browsing).  When I went to page 8 to read the referenced stories, there were two articles broken out by the topics mentioned above.  The one on healthcare said the administration’s proposed hikes for enrollment fees and prescription drugs were a ‘breach of faith’ with those who served their nation faithfully and sacrificed much to enjoy the benefits that they currently have (a graphic depicting eroding confidence among active duty military members in the president and Congress accompanies the article).  The piece on retirement reform states up front that these changes would not affect those serving in uniform today or those who earned their present retirement benefits though the current system (and somewhat contradicts the ‘your’ in that sensationalistic headline on the front page).   These stories continued over on page 10 where examples of cost increases (one by specific prescription drug) were provided to give the reader a more tangible way for them to compare these changes and to determine how they would be individually affected.  Coincidently, the same reporter contributed to both items (one as the sole writer, the other in collaboration with another journalist). 

When I was active duty, I subscribed to the paper to get an additional perspective on issues that personally affected my subordinates or me.  Because it is a commercial publication and one not directly controlled by the Department of Defense, it has broader editorial liberty to comment on stories and topics that might embarrass specific leaders or the military in general.  It also has a section that allows readers to provide their own feedback on covered topics and I can remember some very interesting inputs over my 30-year readership.  This perceived ‘insubordination’ of the time-honored concept of ‘chain of command’ led to many of my peers deriding the publication—calling it a ‘rag’ and putting its credibility in the same strata as supermarket checkout tabloids.  Most of those critics felt that the Air Force’s problems should be handled ‘in house’ and not made the subject of public scrutiny (it could also be that they would have more control over such issues if they stayed inside military channels).  Conversely, I subscribed to the ideal that ‘knowledge is power’ and the more I had available to me, the better I could explain such situations to my troops if—or when—questioned.  

In closing, I can easily see that the Air Force Times, like the military in general, has an editorial bias towards conservative ideologies and the politicians who advocate them.  However, knowing that such a preference exists forces me to do my own research in order to determine to what degree it influences the story.  Perhaps this ‘detection’ ability is responsible for eventually driving me towards formally studying journalism.  I sometimes wonder what took me so long.

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