Published originally on May 21, 2020, this column by Ernie Gates, ombudsman for Stars and Stripes, powerfully demonstrates the unique news coverage and content at risk if the Department of Defense cuts funding for the news organization.
The coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt is freshly in the news again, rightly grabbing the attention of news organizations everywhere, including Stars and Stripes. But this column is not about the CVN-71 story that everybody is covering. This column is about all the stories that wouldn’t be told, if not for Stars and Stripes.
These stories, from U.S. bases around the world, are a rebuttal to the misleading claim that Stripes is obsolete or redundant — a claim behind the Pentagon’s proposal to zero out Stripes’ $15.5 million slice of the $705 billion defense budget and shut it down. To keep these stories coming, and keep Stars and Stripes serving deployed troops, families and DOD civilians around the world, it’s up to Congress to reverse the Pentagon’s proposal and make Stripes’ appropriation ironclad.
Here’s a little sample of Stripes’ unique coverage. COVID-19 is obviously a global story, but outbreaks, shutdowns, tests and quarantines happen locally. That’s where Stripes reporters deliver exclusive local content through news accounts and personal stories, while wire service reports provide the global picture, the national response and the politics.
In South Korea, Stripes was on the scene in Daegu immediately at the first big outbreak in the country, pinpointing the gathering that started the spread and following up repeatedly as U.S. Forces Korea responded with lockdowns, quarantines, collaborative testing with our allies, and more. Stories covered the threat to readiness, but also the human side, as when an Army couple’s premature twins were born in a coronavirus-stricken Daegu hospital and medevaced from Osan Air Base to neonatal care in the U.S. During a video town hall, one base command gave Stripes’ biweekly community publication a shout-out for publishing middle-high school students’ poems about life in lockdown.
In Japan, a 7th Fleet homecoming at Yokosuka went socially distanced and hugless as returning crew members went into quarantine. Child care centers serving Yokota, Camp Zama and Yokosuka were closed because of suspected coronavirus exposure. Early on, U.S. Forces Japan recognized Stripes as an important conduit of COVID-19 policies and advisories. Stripes gave voice to families’ concerns that Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Japan were not planning to close — which they soon did. Marines on Okinawa converted their 3D printer training into a mini-factory to produce thousands of facemask and face shield frames for medical workers and gate guards.
Stripes reporters covered the local consequences around the world as coronavirus concerns spread. DODEA schools closed from the Pacific to the Middle East to Europe. High school sports tournaments and spring seasons were called off. Base recreational activities went dark, gyms locked their doors, off-base became off-limits. Food courts were roped off, exchanges kept customers apart. In Italy, carabinieri visited Aviano and Vicenza to check if social distancing rules were being enforced. In Germany, a quarantined Marine spouse sang a parody aria from her balcony to entertain her Patch Barracks neighbors. When DOD announced a worldwide stop-movement order, Stripes reporters on bases around the world highlighted the impact on troops (and families) whose PCS plans were thrown into limbo.
None of those stories were going to be noticed by other news organizations, but Stripes reporters are part of those communities. That remains true as coronavirus restrictions begin to be relaxed.
Plenty of Stripes’ “local” coverage of the pandemic also cast an enterprising light on the larger story. Stripes in Europe first reported DOD’s decision to stop reporting cases base by base and release only an aggregate number worldwide. As debate raged over the source of the outbreak on the carrier Roosevelt and the captain’s judgment in making a port call in Vietnam, Stripes reporting disclosed broad prior agreement along the chain of command for that port call.
Of course, unrelated to the pandemic, Stripes reporters continued to produce stories of special local relevance, such as the threat of double taxation on troops in Germany. With reporters still based in Afghanistan, unlike most news sources, Stripes was in a unique position to add praise to the obituary of Medal of Honor recipient Ronald Shurer from some of the Afghan special forces leaders he trained and fought beside.
There are plenty more where these stories came from, and more being reported, written, edited and published every day. Far from being obsolete, Stars and Stripes’ independent news report delivers unique content to deployed troops and families, helps them exercise their rights of citizenship, and links them to home as nothing else can. Whether during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic or in “normal” times, Stars and Stripes’ reporting supports morale by building community and shared experience among those who serve overseas.
The FY21 Defense bills are under consideration in Congress now. It’s a good time to tell your senators and House member to reverse the Pentagon’s shutdown plan, restore Stars and Stripes’ appropriation and rescue its important mission.
Ernie Gates is the independent ombudsman for Stars and Stripes, a congressionally mandated position in which his charge is to hold the newsroom accountable to journalism values and to defend it from command interference or censorship. He worked as a reporter and editor for more than 30 years in Virginia, where he lives today.