This letter, written by Publisher’s Advisory Board member, Dave Mazzarella, was sent to Congressional leaders in the U.S. Senate asking for their support to protect Stars and Stripes. Please feel free to share with other Friends of Stripes.
The First Amendment to the Constitution is about to suffer a blow from the very institution committed to protecting it.
Without warning, the Pentagon’s proposed 2021 budget ends the entire annual subsidy owed to Stars and Stripes, the Department of Defense-owned but independent newspaper that is an informational lifeline to America’s military community. Especially to those troops dodging bullets and bombs on the front lines. They have scant means of otherwise being informed of news important to them.
The Pentagon says it needs the money – a relatively small infusion of $15.5 million in a budget of $705 billion. Stars and Stripes needs it because the cost of far-flung distribution to troops is more than it can earn on its own through subscriptions and advertising.
If the Pentagon argument wins, the result would be a drastic downsizing if not total demise of a newspaper whose proud heritage dates to the Civil War and whose independent mission was sanctified by Congress.
As a member of the Stars and Stripes Publisher’s Advisory Board, I am appealing to you to fight for the newspaper’s survival in the now-underway budget process.
The newspaper is not merely a bulletin board for official announcements but a hard-driving, nonpartisan, award-winning newspaper whose two top editors are former international bureau chiefs for The Associated Press. And it’s not just 32 pages of newsprint but a total communications unit. Its platforms are print, web, tablet, mobile devices e-newspapers, video, podcasts and social media.
To an audience of 1.4 million on any given day, it reports news to men and women in the field as well as veterans everywhere – news they can get from no other source – not just the worldwide course of Covid-19, for instance, but how it is affecting Mr. and Ms. Servicemember. It has no viewpoint of its own, no editorial page. And the columns it prints from other correspondents must be politically balanced.
Yet there has been tension between the newspaper and the public relations branches of the Pentagon. Where some officers see invasive reporting, Stars and Stripes sees ordinary news gathering. In some of those instances – including an ill-fated attempt to force Stripes to move into the bailiwick of the public affairs department – Congress has wrapped its protective arms around Stripes.
This time, as the proposed budget cut was surfacing, the DoD’s acting controller stated, “In the modern age” running a newspaper “is probably not the best way we communicate.” To that, Ernie Gates, the newspaper’s ombudsman, occupying a Congressionally created position, wrote: “Stars and Stripes’ mission is not to communicate the DoD command message. So ‘we communicate’ misses the mission.”
Gates included Stars and Stripes squarely under the protections of the First Amendment, which lies under the protection of the Constitution, which in turn is championed by the Armed Forces. He wrote: “Stripes is part of a free press – free of censorship, free of command interference, free of prior restraint or prior review.”
Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Jonathan Peters, a professor at the University of Georgia, said: “I would argue that Stars and Stripes, as an editorially independent organization, is a designated public forum under the First Amendment.” Thus its free speech is protected – only in this case its “speech” is not opinion but news.
Another member of the Publisher’s Advisory Board, Rufus Friday of Kentucky, wrote to Mitch McConnell. He asked him save Stars and Stripes. McConnell described himself as a “longtime defender and proponent of the First Amendment.” He went on: “While the President’s budget request for fiscal 2021 proposed cuts to Stars and Stripes’ federal funding, it is up to the Congress to determine the total amount appropriated for this newspaper.”
That is so, and we hope the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations likewise stands up for the First Amendment and the troops who defend it, by restoring to the FY21 budget the funding that keeps Stars and Stripes in their hands.
Falls Church, Virginia
Member, Publisher’s Advisory Board
Stars and Stripes