Stars and Stripes has been chronicling the military angle of the covid-19 crisis for months now: sailors infected on Navy ships, face masks purchased for the Department of Defense workforce, stimulus checks cut for veterans. But in the midst of the pandemic, the newspaper faces an unprecedented threat all its own: In February, the Trump administration proposed eliminating all of the publication’s federal support in 2021. That’s more than $15 million a year, about half its budget. “I can’t think of a graver threat to its independence,” the paper’s ombudsman, Ernie Gates, told me recently. “That’s a fatal cut.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper justifies the cut by saying the publication’s money should be spent on “higher-priority issues,” including space and nuclear programs. But considering that Stars and Stripes represents a minuscule fraction of the department’s $705 billion budget — “decimal dust,” as editorial director Terry Leonard puts it — critics see the proposal as consistent with the president’s broader war on journalism. “It’s another obnoxious assault by the Trump administration on freedom of the press,” says Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, who blasts the defunding plan as “un-American.”
Now Moulton’s committee — and ultimately the rest of Congress — must decide whether to support the appropriation by the fall, preserving a news organization with a unique civic role. This deliberation comes as the coronavirus economic crisis exacerbates the news industry’s financial woes, adding to what The Washington Post recently described as a “tsunami of layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs and closures” washing over American newsrooms.
Stars and Stripes, which dates back to the Civil War, has published continuously since World War II. In 2010, the paper won a prestigious George Polk Award for revealing the Defense Department’s use of a public relations firm that profiled reporters and steered them toward favorable coverage of the war in Afghanistan. In 2015, the publication broke the news that NBC anchor Brian Williams had exaggerated a story about his reporting in Iraq. Much of the day-to-day coverage is news of direct concern to service members and their families: pay and benefits, life on base and in the field, the real people behind the global geopolitics.
The paper is a modern multimedia operation with a website, a social media presence and a couple of podcasts, and the print edition reaches troops in parts of the world where Internet access is absent. “I remember being in al-Anbar and Haditha and picking up Stars and Stripes in the middle of a war zone,” says Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), one of Moulton’s committee colleagues and a fellow Marine veteran. “I didn’t have a cellphone. Access to the Internet was very limited. But with every mail delivery there came a Stars and Stripes, and I was able to keep connected to the world.”
“Stars and Stripes kept our spirits up and kept us informed at some of the most difficult times,” says Moulton, who served four tours of duty in Iraq. “Just knowing they were out there doing their job — looking out for us by doggedly pursuing the truth — gave us more faith in our work and reinforced the values we were literally putting our lives on the line for.” The paper’s publisher, Max Lederer, told me, “You can give a service member the best gun in the world, but if his mind is elsewhere — if he’s worried about things at home — then he’s not going to be as good a soldier, and part of our role is to provide that information to give him a sense of comfort.”
Though the Trump administration is the first to propose defunding the paper, there has always been a natural tension between Stars and Stripes and the Pentagon. The paper’s editorial staffers are Department of Defense employees, but their charge is different from — and sometimes at odds with — that of the military’s public affairs team. Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, told reporters in February, “that newspaper is probably not the best way that we communicate any longer.” But that misrepresents what the paper is meant to communicate. “We’re not there to provide the command message,” Lederer told me. “We’re there to analyze the command message and to provide information necessary for the military community.”
Another impediment to providing that information, Lederer said, is a Pentagon that restricts journalistic access more than under previous administrations. Fewer reporters are allowed to travel with military officials. Asking questions in informal “gaggles” is no longer routine, and formal briefings were discontinued until Esper revived them. In general, information is harder to come by, inhibiting reporters from playing their watchdog role.
But Stars and Stripes has always garnered strong bipartisan support from another Pentagon watchdog: Congress. And that looks likely to continue this year. “We have the numbers,” Gallego told me. “I think we have the votes.” Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, likewise opposes cutting the funding, despite asserting that “Secretary Esper is right to look for efficiencies.”
“This service cannot be duplicated in the private sector and should be maintained,” Thornberry said in a statement to The Post. “Ultimately, ‘Stripes’ should be preserved, but the business model will have to change so that the program can be maintained without taxing DOD resources.” But Thornberry concedes the fundamental point: “Stars and Stripes performs a useful function for men and women in uniform, particularly those who are forward deployed with limited access to news.” As Gates puts it, “Nobody else covers the Defense Department schools in Japan.”
Graham Vyse is a Post Magazine contributing writer.