- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stars and Stripes — long may it wave? Maybe not. The venerable newspaper that has reported independent news about the American military since the Civil War finds itself on the budget-cutting front lines.

Long eyed as a potential budget casualty, Stars and Stripes admitted the danger has become more intense in recent days, writing in its Monday edition that the Pentagon brass “is considering the elimination of Stars and Stripes” and the Pentagon Channel, the broadcast outlet for military news and information for U.S. armed forces, as well as programming cuts to the 61-year-old American Forces Network, the Pentagon’s in-house news and entertainment channel.

While traditional media properties have been under siege for years because of online competition, the paper’s closure would mark a distinct cultural milestone. Reaction from readers to reports of the paper’s woes has ranged from outraged to blase

“If this is a matter of funding, then why not ask if we would mind paying a little more?” asked retired Master Gunnery Sgt. A.R. Nichols. “I know Stripes is provided for free to our forward-deployed men and women. I am more than willing to pay a higher price for the newspaper we had than what I am buying now.”

“They should be ashamed of themselves, killing information and news but keep up the spending on failed programs,” added one reader.

“It is stupid to be giving billions of dollars to other countries but yet we can’t support our own military men and women,” said another.

But others were more willing to move on to civilian news outlets, or questioned the newspaper’s value at providing insight in a world of free, universally available online alternatives.

“There hasn’t been a critical need for the Stripes in over a dozen years,” wrote commenter “Desk Pilot.” “No different from all the [military] base newspapers that used to exist. It’s an expense we can’t afford anymore.”

Pentagon scrutiny

The newspaper’s prospects will be evaluated by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office and those findings are destined for the office of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has ordered “a top-to-bottom spending review” across the entire agency to meet some $52 billion in cuts mandated by Congress. No one is commenting on the particulars, though three defense officials have told Stars and Stripes representatives that “everything” will be examined.

That includes the newspaper’s $7.2 million annual operating budget, which is subsidized by the Defense Department. The outlet also receives revenue from advertising and newspaper sales. Annual costs for the American Forces Radio and Television Service are $52 million, and for the Pentagon Channel, about $6 million.

“Although the parameters of the review are unclear, Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer said budget officials have been making unprecedented requests for information. He said he’d been tasked with providing budget numbers and scenarios for cuts — sometimes given just hours to do so — without being told why the review was underway,” the newspaper said in its account.

“When you get asked questions in a vacuum, you get concerned,” Mr. Lederer said.

Though it is authorized and subsidized by the Pentagon, Stars and Stripes is editorially independent under federal law, staffed primarily by civilians and guaranteed First Amendment privileges that are subject to congressional oversight. The first version of the paper was published by Union troops during the Civil War, with further refinements appearing during both world wars and the decades to follow.

The paper, which now boasts a significant online and electronic presence, has some powerful fans, however. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, thinks that the Pentagon should not pull the plug.

“I think it would be a terrible mistake, I really do. The men and women who are serving get a lot of their information this way. It’s a great conduit to spread information to the men and women who are serving all over the world,” the Arizona Republican said, adding, “I think it would be crazy.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, also condemns the idea of shuttering the newspaper, which continues to offer a cross section of compelling and often exclusive news reports.

“I don’t like the idea. I certainly acknowledge [the Pentagon has] some really difficult choices ahead, and I’d want to look at it. But I think an independent editorial voice like Stars and Stripes provides is pretty darned important for transparency and accountability and oversight in the military,” she said.

The paper is not distributed in the U.S., but has a big footprint overseas, with specific content from several theaters of operation.

In 2013, Stars and Stripes printed and distributed 5 million newspapers in the European and Pacific theaters and about 10 million newspapers in “contingency areas,” with editions available in digital, tablet and smartphone editions.

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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