Spars and Stripes

The next day, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stepped up to the podium in front of the DOD’s seal in the Pentagon’s briefing room for regular sparring session with the press. It was here that Rumsfeld made his reputation for hectoring, demeaning, and entertaining reporters with his quasi-professorial, mostly uninformative answers to their questions. Rumsfeld is not the sort of senior official who encourages a lot of open discourse or the airing of bad news. Indeed, under his tenure the “Early Bird,” the Pentagon’s in-house news clipping service, last year began to exclude articles that reflected poorly on the administration’s policies. So it was no surprise that when asked about low morale in the field, Rumsfeld responded by questioning the surveys’ credibility in his usual Little League coach manner, cheerful but condescending. “I’m not an expert on it, but I’m told it was an informal and admittedly non-scientific poll,” he said. “And one would have to say that if you take a couple hundred thousand people and looked across them, you’re going to find people at every point in the spectrum in terms of their views and whether they’re up or down or happy or sad or whatever.”

Having attacked the message, the Pentagon leadership commenced attacking the messenger. Despite enjoying the biggest defense budget since Vietnam–and the $87 billion in emergency cash appropriated by Congress for the occupation–the secretary’s office decided that Stars & Stripes was too big a drain on the budget, and that some belt-tightening would be needed at the paper. The paper’s staff quickly figured out the message. “It’s not about money,” one anonymous Striper wrote on Jim Romenesko’s media gossip Web site in January. “It’s totally political. It’s about trying to kill Stars & Stripes.”

The irony is, The Washington Monthly has learned, that the series on low morale which raised the secretary’s ire had already been watered down by the paper’s editors. A wishy-washy headline–“What is the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq? Answers vary”–had been slapped on the lead story, as had a prominent pull-quote from Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq, insisting that morale was good. Other pieces in the series had been toned down or badly rewritten, substituting passive bland prose for harder-hitting active phrasing. Others were condensed into quick mentions or cut altogether.

Shortly after the gelded series appeared, the reporters who worked “Ground Truth” fired off a joint letter of protest to the paper’s leadership. “The story selection, editing, headlines and layout lean far too heavily in favor of the rosy assessment of top leaders and the relatively few troops who appear to agree with them,” the memo read. “With little or no explanation, pivotal stories were spiked, key segments of material were deleted removing dozens of strong comments from soldiers critical of the mission and Pentagon leadership.” Requesting an outside, independent investigation of how the series was put together, they instead got an internal investigation by the newspaper’s current ombudsman, Joseph Ungaro, who praised both the series and top Pentagon officials for their cooperation. The journalists who reported the story rolled their eyes. “The entire package was watered down to the point of unrecognizability,” one of them told me in March, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Some reporters wished that they could have had their bylines taken off that package.”

Stars & Stripes‘ headquarters are on the third floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington, decorated with blow-ups of classic black-and-white photographs from the paper’s past, like the young, trim Sergeant Elvis Presley grinning down from the wall outside the publisher’s office. Technically, the reporters for Stripes–billed as the “authorized, independent daily newspaper of the Defense Department for the U.S. military community”–all work under the secretary of defense. Indeed, Stripes was once staffed entirely by enlisted soldiers. Civilian reporters were first brought in after World War II, and in the late 1980s, a round of censorship complaints prompted Congress to put civilians in editor slots too, along with an independent ombudsman. The transition to a civilian publisher in the mid-1990s completed what should have been a transition to almost complete functional independence from the Pentagon. Over the years, Stripes has produced not a few noted journalists, including Steve Kroft and Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes” fame. And the staff–most of whom work abroad–are fiercely protective of the paper’s independence and keenly aware of the esteem in which it is held by soldiers in the field. “The paper has such a legacy,” reporter Ward Sanderson, who wrote the lead story on morale for the “Ground Truth” series, told me recently. “They feel like it’s something for them, and not just a newspaper.”

In many respects, Stripes is like a typical daily newspaper covering a large town or small city. It covers a gamut of local issues The New York Times won’t: “Pipe at Camp Humphreys ruptures, spilling 33,000 gallons of aviation fuel,” ran a recent headline. Copies cost 50 cents; the paper derives the bulk of its revenue from advertising and subscriptions. But what kept Stripes in the black was the paper’s lucrative concession to run bookstores on U.S. bases. That changed in 1994 when Congress handed the bookstores over to the Army and Air Forces Exchange Services, which run the base PXs, and instructed the Pentagon to pony up one-third of the paper’s roughly $36 million budget–keeping Stripes in business, but giving the brass new leverage even as the paper was becoming wholly civilian run.

“Once they got control of the purse strings you can pretty much sketch in the rest of the picture,” a former Striper told me. In 2000, for instance, publisher Tom Kelsch spiked–at Pentagon insistence–a scoop that the United States was moving a Patriot missile battery from Germany to Israel. (Insult joined injury when Kelsch instructed the paper to run The Washington Post’s version of the same story.) The editor quit in protest. Kelsch described the episode to me as the “most flaming example” of Pentagon interference during his tenure.

But things took a turn for the worse when the Bush administration came into office. Press secretary Victoria Clarke put Stripes–formerly supervised by a career civil servant–under the purview of a political appointee. “It’s a disadvantage, there’s no question about that, for Stripes,” one congressional source told me. Members of Congress frequently have to shoot down Pentagon trial balloons, this person said, that in the last year alone have included talk of a funding cut and a further restructuring of Stripes management.

Then came the war in Iraq. As the military geared for war last spring, so too did Stripes. It opened a Kuwait bureau, embedded reporters among U.S. fighting units, and deployed others to surrounding countries like Turkey and Bahrain. But with so many troops ordinarily stationed in Europe deployed in Iraq–and half the army’s combat units serving there–advertising and circulation both plummeted. To stay in the black, Stripes needed to shift distribution to where its readers were. But once major hostilities ended and the paper started printing in Baghdad, U.S. Central Command limited the paper to a single small printing press in Baghdad and would only buy 15,000 copies daily. They were widely available at Baghdad International Airport, but made it out to the far reaches of the country with less frequency. “15,000 newspapers in Central Command with 240,000 troops in the [area]? You do the math,” one staffer said. “That’s ridiculous.”

The publication of “Ground Truth” didn’t help. In the wake of the internal debate, Stripes Editorial Director Dave Mazzarella, issued an internal memorandum stating that “balance, accuracy and interest are conditions that must be met in order for Stripes to enjoy freedom from interference.” Those Stripes reporters who took this as an admission that Mazzarrella had watered down the package in the hopes of avoiding a run-in with his superiors were not surprised when, not long after, word got around that the paper was losing money and would have to find a way to stop the bleeding–possibly by closing bureaus, combining the daily color magazine supplements (one is devoted to travel, another, “Pulse,” is an alternative weekly aimed at the under-30 crowd), or selling the European press. Things improved somewhat in March, when the Pentagon found $2 million to help augment circulation in Iraq to 25,000 per day–the maximum possible in the Baghdad printing plant, though Kelsch said they hope to eventually double that. But in the long run, that won’t be enough to sustain the paper. “When we come right down to it, it seems to me to be a question of the military wanting to crimp the newspaper’s financial status in order to force the paper to be less entrepreneurial in its investigative reporting,” said Phil Robbins, a former Stripes ombudsman who still serves as the liaison between the paper and the Society of Professional Journalists.

That kind of interference is a dangerous game. Stripers who reported the “Ground Truth” stories said the biggest complaint they heard was that troops didn’t feel like they were getting good information about little things like when they would be going home. While an Army may travel on its stomach, its morale–especially in an all-volunteer force–survives on good, straight information, which Stripes should provide without fetters. With the situation in Iraq showing no signs of improvement–indeed, getting worse as of mid-April–everyone in the military, from homebound spouses to soldiers to Pentagon civilians, needs unvarnished truth in order to respond ably. Whether they’ll get it from Stars & Stripes is unfortunately an open question.

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