The venerable Stars and Stripes—the newspaper serving U.S. service members since the Civil War—faces being stripped of its lifeblood of federal funding.
Despite efforts to continue to provide federal funds at current levels, about $15 million, the Senate on July 24 approved a version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that did not include funding for Stripes.
In cutting the editorially independent Stars and Stripes from the proposed $740.5 billion 2021 defense budget, the Senate essentially affirmed Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s determination the outlet was not a priority in funding requirements.
“We trimmed the support for Stars and Stripes because we need to invest that money, as we did with many, many other programs, into higher-priority issues,” Esper said in February during a news conference at NATO headquarters.
Subsidized by the Pentagon, approximately $8.7 million of the newspaper’s federally funded budget goes towards “operations and maintenance funds, and roughly $6.9 million in overseas contingency operations. Altogether, this accounts for approximately half of the publication’s annual budget,” reports Military Times.
“It’s such a small number in comparison to the whole budget, it’s less than a rounding error,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz, a Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq, said before the committee approved the bill. “This has nothing to do with budgets. This has to do with the DoD not liking investigative journalism. If not for [Stripes], Congress might not know about some of these important issues. I think they believe this is the one time to get rid of Stars and Stripes.”
Last year the newspaper distributed more than seven million copies of its U.S. weekly edition to its readers. It also boasts an online audience that in 2019 attracted 18.8 million unique visitors, reports CNN.
To the government, however, the print process was outdated. “We have essentially decided that, you know, kind of coming into the modern age that newspapers [are] probably not the best way that we communicate any longer,” Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, told reporters at a briefing on February 10.
Ernie Gates, Stars and Stripes’ ombudsman, pushed back on McCusker’s statement on Twitter earlier this year writing, “Stars and Stripes’ mission is not to communicate the DOD or command message, but to be an independent, First Amendment publication that serves the troops—especially deployed troops,” Gates writes. “So ‘we communicate’ misses the mission.”
The Pentagon subsidy is roughly half of the Stripes’ annual funds and is used largely to maintain reporters in conflict zones, specifically in the Middle East. The other revenue comes from sales, subscriptions, and advertising.
In an email to all Stripes’ employees in February, Max Lederer, Stars and Stripes’ publisher, wrote that the loss of funding would “definitely reduce” the outlet’s reporting abilities. “The men and women who sacrifice every day for the safety of our nation deserve the objective and balanced unique content produced by Stars and Stripes,” he said.
This is not the first time the centuries-old newspaper was threatened by budget cuts. In 2016, the outlet’s government subsidy was called into question. However, the cut faced significant pushback, by then-Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot—and the House Armed Services Committee added a protective measure in the annual defense bill.
Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., a Navy veteran joined Gallego in criticizing the current effort to cut federal funding for Stripes.
“Stars & Stripes was a link to home when I was in Iraq and Okinawa,” Gallego said on Twitter.
Cisneros tweeted that Stars and Stripes “provides a crucial voice on the DOD, VA, and other military matters. We need their reporting.”
Whether Stripes will receive federal funding next year is not yet determined, however.
The House earlier passed a version of the 2021 NDAA that included funding for Stripes at current levels. A conference committee of House and Senate Armed Service committees will meet to agree to a final version.
The final defense bill is expected to be approved by both chambers of Congress by September 30 of this year.