Stars and Stripes’ ombudsman Ernie Gates explains the progress through the House committee and the next steps toward ensuring Stripes has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission.

BY ERNIE GATES | OMBUDSMAN | JULY 6, 2020

A key House defense committee voted to block the Pentagon’s proposal to shut down Stars and Stripes, but the fate of the editorially independent military news operation remains in doubt. With critical votes ahead, support in the Senate is uncertain, and Defense Department funding for Stars and Stripes runs out Oct. 1.

The House Armed Services Committee passed the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act unanimously on July 1. In the bill, which authorizes $740 billion in defense spending, one section directs that DoD provide $15 million for Stars and Stripes – roughly equaling its current appropriation. In addition, the annual defense policy bill directs the Secretary of Defense to analyze options for maintaining Stars and Stripes as an information benefit for U.S. troops, and report back to Congress by March 1, 2021.

“Thousands of troops around the globe rely on them for the kind of news that just isn’t covered elsewhere – stories from American bases, the latest Department of Defense news, and transparency coverage that cuts through political and military brass BS talking points,” said committee member and Marine veteran Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-AZ, who sponsored the language. “It’s exactly the type of honest coverage that our armed forces need, and we weren’t going to let the Administration stifle these voices without a fight.”

The language was presented to the committee in what is known as the “chairman’s mark,” an indication that the proposal to save Stars and Stripes has the support of committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-WA.

The Senate’s version of the bill, which was passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee in June, does not include any language blocking the Pentagon’s shutdown plan. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-IL, offered an amendment to direct funding to Stripes, but it was not approved by the committee.

The separate versions of the massive policy bill differ on many terms, which must be reconciled by a conference committee after the full House and Senate pass their versions. Both the Senate and House are expected to take their versions to floor votes when Congress returns from its Fourth of July recess the week of July 20. The conference to resolve differences could occur in September or later.

In addition to the authorization act, military spending is dictated by the Defense portion of the annual Appropriations Act. As with the defense policy bill, differences in the appropriations bills must be reconciled by conference after the separate bills pass the House and Senate.

In the House, committee work will proceed during the July recess, and the House Appropriations Committee begins its markup of the FY21 spending bills this week. The Defense subcommittee takes up its work on Wednesday (July 8). Democratic leaders have indicated their intention to pass all appropriations bills before Congress’ August recess.

In the Senate, Appropriations Committee markups were to begin before the July recess, but that schedule was derailed by disagreements over issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic and police reform. With another recess on the calendar from Aug. 10 to Sept. 7, it is not clear if the Senate will bring appropriations bills to the floor before September.

Slowdowns in the legislative process concern advocates for Stars and Stripes, because Stripes’ Defense Department funding expires Oct. 1, at the end of the current fiscal year. The appropriation represents roughly half of Stars and Stripes operating revenue, with the rest coming from advertising and subscription sales. The operation can’t be sustained for long without the federal funding that enables reporting and distribution on U.S. bases around the world, including remote and often dangerous areas where troops are deployed.

With the Stars and Stripes Publisher’s Advisory Board, a group of mostly retired news executives, I have been working to win support on both sides of the Capitol. Especially in an election year, constituents can get through to members of Congress. So now is a good time to urge your senators and representative to block the Pentagon’s move to shut down Stars and Stripes. Support on the appropriations committees on both sides of the Capitol is especially important now.

Below are talking points compiled from PAB members and other communications with members of Congress:

Talking points: Why is Stars and Stripes important?

·        Stars and Stripes’ independent content is not duplicated by other news organizations. Original staff reporting is focused on the lives and needs of deployed service members, families and DoD civilians. With reporters on American military bases around the world, Stars and Stripes delivers stories that would not otherwise be told.

·        Stars and Stripes is not a market, it’s a mission. No profit-oriented operating model could sustain its necessarily far-flung reporting and distribution system. That’s what justifies Stripes’ $15.5 million appropriation (DoD comptroller’s accounting for FY20). That covers about half of Stripes’ operating expenses; the rest is non-appropriated funds from advertising and subscriptions.

·        Stripes is designed to support the mission first. Stars and Stripes is operationally designed to provide content rapidly to the forces wherever they deploy. Stripes opens and closes production and logistic operations quickly based on the needs of the force. Other news organizations’ decision to support a deployed force would be based on an assessment of a profitable return.

·        Stars and Stripes has not been made obsolete by the Internet. Stars and Stripes delivers news and information on all platforms – print, web, tablet, mobile device, e-newsletters, video, podcast and social media – but in some geographic areas a print product is still vital. In many areas, the internet is not available to some personnel (gate guards, convoy members, trigger pullers on patrol, etc.) or too poor to be useful. Military members are sometimes prohibited from deploying with personal mobile devices, further limiting their access to digital information.

·        Stars and Stripes serves the readiness and morale of the military community. Morale and readiness are enhanced in a well-informed force, who have access to reliable, independent information, and who believe that the leadership of DoD can be held accountable for their actions through a free press. In this way, Stripes is an enhancement to lethality by creating trust and confidence in leadership through the rigors of independent journalism and maintaining confidence that loved ones are safe and have opportunities to enjoy life while their military member is away from home.

·        Stars and Stripes’ First Amendment mission within DoD is a visible expression of America’s democratic values. It shows that our military can handle scrutiny from a free press. It gives the defenders of our democracy the tools to exercise their rights and participate in that democracy as informed citizens.

·        Thousands of military men and women and their families count on Stars and Stripes. It has been their hometown paper — something no other media can or will do — while they served here and abroad.