If anyone had told me a year or so ago that the U.S. Navy would be willingly providing me with the latest updates on the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program -- good or bad -- I'd have split a gut in laughter.
After all, at least two Navy officials had threatened in the spring of 2012 to put me in jail for some of my recent reporting and my methods of getting my material.
All of that started to change, though, in late summer of last year. At some morning speaking event -- I can't remember which Navy officer was talking that day -- one of the service public officers pulled me aside and told me, "Admiral Kirby wants to talk to you."
That would be Rear Adm. John Kirby, Navy chief of information.
I was prepared for another attack on my recent LCS stories.
"I've been reading your LCS stories," he started. I prepared for the onslaught.
Instead, I heard this: "Good stuff -- wish we would have had that kind of reporting earlier."
Now, I'm from Philly -- so, immediately, I thought the worst.
"Are you being sarcastic?" I asked.
"Not at all," he said.
From that moment on, instead of butting heads like angry rams, Navy officials and I started to meet and chat about the good, bad and ugly on LCS development.
They were remarkably transparent and open. Surprisingly so.
To be sure, the transparency short-circuited some of the harsh headlines we were ready to run. During the months of denial and radio silence we had gone through regarding LCS programs, we enjoyed free rein of sorts with the material we published -- as long as it was accurate.
We had still had plenty of goods to write, too.
But with the Navy's cooperation, we were able to provide a much fuller and more accurate picture of what was really going on in the LCS program. Some of my supporters of our earlier reporting have accused me of "drinking the Kool-Aid."
But I'd rather have better stories than screaming headlines anytime.
As for the Navy, Rear Adm. Kirby now explains why the service opted for more transparency -- even with a rogue -- and the benefits of taking that course so far. Adm. Kirby writes:
For me, this was a no-brainer. You have to remember that I came into this job with almost no knowledge of the LCS program. I knew it was a ship. That’s about all.
So, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about it -- the program guide, the OPNAV (chief of naval operations) report, studies done by watchdog groups, even our own talking points. I also took a close look at all the press reporting.
I noticed that there was a lot of good reporting being done out there, especially by guys like Mike Fabey and Chris Cavas of Defense News -- solid, aggressive journalism that explained the challenges the program continued to endure. But I also noticed two other things. First, that some of the progress I’d been reading about in internal documents wasn’t getting much, if any, ink. And second, we -- the Navy -- weren’t as present in the coverage as I would have expected.
We just didn’t seem to “be there.”
So, I started asking questions about the degree of access we were giving reporters. Come to find out, it wasn’t all that much. That made no sense to me, absolutely no sense.
Here we were, fully committed to this program, needing the support of Congress and even of our own internal Navy audience, and we weren’t really opening up. We were giving “the Heisman” – the brush-off – to guys like Mike, who knew the program inside and out and could actually help us explain ourselves and our intentions.
To be fair, media officers at CHINFO and even many of our fleet leaders were chomping at the bit to share the story -- ALL the story -- but we weren’t giving them free rein to do it.
Look, every program has its bumps. Every program struggles to some degree. But it’s not just widgets and pipes and wires we’re talking about. It’s real money, taxpayer money. And it’s real capability we are trying to develop. We have an obligation to clarify all that.
This may come across as overly dramatic, but these ships don’t belong to us. They belong to the American people. And the American people have a right to know what we are doing with their investments.
The way I figured it was, if we want to be able to talk credibly about the things we were doing right on LCS, we needed to likewise be credible about the things we weren’t doing so well. People are never going to believe only half the story. I call it aggressive transparency, and that’s what I wanted for LCS.
Once we turned the action officers loose, they took off and built the relationships with reporters that were so lacking. Our fleet commanders, program managers and other leaders also stepped up. As a result of those relationships and the mutual access they afforded, the narrative started to change.
We still have work to do, even inside the Navy. But I think we’re getting there, and I think the press coverage -- already quite vibrant -- has improved. And I don’t mean that from a “positive” or “negative” perspective. I don’t like it when people refer to news coverage that way. What I mean is that the coverage today is simply more fulsome and contextual now that we are being more open about everything.
The Littoral Combat Ship will be a big part of the future fleet. It’s more than “just a ship.” We have to do more than just answer questions about it. We need to have meaningful conversations. We need to be accessible.
I’m OK if people question the program, but I don’t want them to ever question our transparency. Thanks to the great support we are getting from the fleet, that’s not a problem anymore.