Stars and Stripes objects to move

February 22, 2012

Through war and peace, Stars and Stripes has vigorously guarded its independence from military control. The newspaper that published the World War II cartoons of Bill Mauldin and the dispatches of famed battlefield correspondents covers the American military around the world but is officially separate from it.

So the latter-day heirs of Mauldin, et al., are up in arms about a Defense Department directive that, they say, could compromise their proud tradition of reporting without the Pentagon’s second-guessing.

The government-subsidized newspaper has been ordered by its administrative overseer to vacate its headquarters in a downtown Washington office building and relocate to a military facility, Fort Meade, in Anne Arundel County. The move — a cost-saving measure in a time of Pentagon cutbacks — would place the newspaper in the same facility as one of the military’s main public-affairs operations.

The newspaper’s editorial staff can see all kinds of potential mischief in the proposed arrangement, with visions of military brass striding into the newsroom to hector or sweet-talk editors about stories. Mostly, they say, the optics are all wrong: Housing the newspaper on the base would suggest to its readers that its reporting was captive to the people it covers.

“It creates the perception of a lack of independence, that we are doing the bidding of the Pentagon, so to speak,” said Terry Leonard, Stars and Stripes’ top editor. “That’s a huge problem. . . . It’s a step-by-step process. How long will it take before we get absorbed into the great [public affairs] monstrosity that the DoD has?”

Last week, the newspaper’s staff took its case to Congress, which provides about $20 million in operating funds a year and has repeatedly endorsed the publication’s independence. In a letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the committee’s ranking Republican, Leonard and 30 of his editorial colleagues asserted that the paper’s historic autonomy “faces an imminent threat.”

“Forcing Stars and Stripes to operate down the hall from the same [Department of Defense] public affairs officers who have a totally different public relations mission will only deepen the perception that the newspaper is subject to Pentagon censorship,” the letter reads in part.

Leonard hasn’t received a reply from lawmakers yet. But Melvin Russell, director of Defense Media Activity (DMA), the Pentagon public affairs agency, said that it was “a total exaggeration” to suggest that the editorial autonomy of Stars and Stripes would be compromised by a move. “Their editorial content has and will continue to be under the control of the Stars and Stripes staff.”

Russell said the newspaper’s current lease in the National Press Building in Washington is coming to an end and that space is available in a new facility at Fort Meade that houses the DMA, which oversees such military media operations as the American Forces Press Service, the American Forces Network and the Pentagon Channel.

A move to the Fort Meade facility will save the government about $1 million a year, he said.

Stars and Stripes has a daily print circulation of about 70,000 copies, which are distributed to American military personnel in the United States and in Afghanistan, Guam, South Korea, Japan and other foreign locales. It attracted about 675,000 unique visitors last month to its Web site. Its operations are funded partly by Congress and by subscription and advertising revenue.

The newspaper’s main editorial offices were on military bases in Germany and Japan until about 20 years ago, when they were consolidated in the National Press Building in Washington.

“They’ve always talked about their independence,” said Russell, “and I’m one of those people that supports that. Physically locating them in a new building won’t change that. I doubt most people even knew they were headquartered in downtown Washington.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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