On a listening tour to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, my appreciation for Stars and Stripes deepened — a reflection of what I heard from troops who rely on it every day, in every service, at every rank.
They had compliments, concerns and suggestions, and I’ll let them speak for themselves in this column. But first, a little background.
On a previous trip to Germany, I had seen how much troops and families there enjoyed the paper. But the commander of Stars and Stripes (Europe and Expeditionary), Lt. Col. Jeff Myer, and his predecessor, Lt. Col. Lane Benefield, told me that my view would be incomplete until I saw firsthand the enthusiasm for Stars and Stripes “downrange.” So Myer arranged a trip to bases in several Persian Gulf states.
It was eye-opening.
I traveled with Myer, Stripes Mideast Bureau Chief Pat Dickson and Stripes District Manager At Large Dave Schultz, a combination of intrepid driver and resourceful advance man. In chow halls, offices and even the “expeditionary” Starbucks and Fox Sports Bar, we talked with troops, public affairs officers and commanders. And we saw for ourselves how the paper is snapped up and passed around.
And, most importantly, how it’s valued for impartial news — as well as the familiar hometown paper diversions of features, comics and sports.
They’re not looking for news “with two scoops of hooah,” to steal a phrase from a T-wall painting at Camp Buehring in the Kuwaiti desert.
“I want the most independent news — not to be led down the road,” said a Navy P-3C pilot in what I must call an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. “Nobody wants to read that.”
An Army intelligence captain who has read Stripes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany said, “Fox News is consistent with my values, but I want balance and more news — I like Stars and Stripes for that.” He respects that “it’s not all pro-military” and sees the political coverage as “down the middle.”
In Kuwait, an Army captain picked up that theme: “You hear from both sides: ‘Oh, it’s Stars and Stripes, it’s pro-military.’ And ‘Oh, it’s Stars and Stripes, they just want to pick on the military.’”
An Air Force special agent nearing the end of an assignment in the Middle East especially likes that she can expect relevant military news, both the good and the bad. “If it was a propaganda rag, I wouldn’t read it,” she said.
(I’m leaving out the names of most of the people we talked with, because our conversations were casual; I don’t think anybody expected to be quoted in print.)
The sequestration threat in Congress provides an example of what the troops want in news coverage. An Army captain in Kuwait said he wants less of the battle between Democrats and Republicans, and more examination of the prospects. What’s the outlook? Who’s in jeopardy? Showing his own Reserve roots, he predicted: “Washington’s going to be fine. All the contractors are going to be fine. Fort Bragg will still be there. But the Reserves will take the hit. That Reserve Center in XYZ town won’t be there anymore.”
An Army colonel in the Gulf for a conference on how to move what equipment from Afghanistan in the drawdown, likes the balance on Stripes’ op-ed page. “It’s not just Fox versus MSNBC, not Rush versus Ed. I read it every day on deployment, wherever I am.”
That balance came up again and again.
Of course, though I asked about the election coverage everywhere I went, it’s not all about politics. Four Air Force non-coms at a dining facility at an air base in an undisclosed location were practically a focus group about other content. Of high interest to them?
Career management, force reduction, cross-training opportunities.
Tricare, pay, benefits.
“What happens where we are.” In this case, they wanted more about the background and practices of Ramadan, as that Muslim holiday began.
They said they cared less about “eyecatchers” (their term for splashy stories on the front page) than about revealing stories about Iran and Syria — what might be next, in other words.
Relevant military news from back home mattered, too, such as the continuing sexual misconduct scandal involving basic training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
At a DFAC at another undisclosed location, we interrupted an Army 2-star general with a table full of other officers. It became a quick round-robin about Stripes: Heads nodded all around when a colonel across the table said, “It’s an important getaway.”
Presiding over the roundtable, the general added his own uncomplicated and practical request: “Put Doha on the weather map.”
And here’s another request I can relay to the editors. At every stop, by every service, by officers and enlisted, one regular feature was repeatedly named the favorite: the daily American Roundup page that reports short items from around the country, anchored by a feature photo. They love it and they want more. If the editors want a sure bet, just make the American Roundup two pages again. It’s sure to please the readers in the field.
There were other requests, too. At that undisclosed air base, the Public Affairs director expressed what back home might be considered a request for more local news: “We want our airmen to see their own mission in the newspaper.” He understood that the action in Afghanistan was bigger news, but hoped to connect the crucial support work to that coverage. We heard the same reasoning applied to the growing Navy support mission at Naval Support Activity Bahrain, and the expanding Army and Marine training mission with “enduring partnerships” in Kuwait. Afghanistan rightly remains the primary story for Stripes’ reporters in the theater — that’s why Pat Dickson continued there after I turned for home — but I’ll bet readers will see those connections made as part of the larger story.
Overall, the troops we talked with appreciated Stars and Stripes cover to cover. Not just the news, but also amusements and diversions such as the horoscope, the Jumble puzzle and the comics. Likewise music, movies, even understandably belated sports — all the general content that makes Stripes like a hometown American newspaper.
“It’s the number one external media because it’s read by everybody in the theater,” said one PAO colonel at a major air base.
And they want the paper in their hands, even as web and mobile content increases. Online is fine, an Air Force chief said, but “I can pick up the paper and take it with me wherever I go.”
We visited a printing plant in Bahrain to see Stripes come off the presses there, the start of a long haul around the theater by truck and by air.
In my years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I came to appreciate that all the work we did up front depended downstream on the efforts of the overnight army of part-timers who delivered the paper across cities and far-flung counties, house by house, before dawn, from a fleet of old station wagons, pickups and such. The logistics were daunting and the reliability remarkable.
But that was nothing, compared with the logistics of getting Stripes downrange. Not only to Kuwait, Bahrain and undisclosed locations in the region, but to Kabul and Helmand and Kandahar.
Likewise, the way even the most loyal readers here at home enjoy their newspaper pales against the enthusiasm I saw for Stripes downrange. I believe it’s rewarding and motivating to everybody who works to make Stars and Stripes happen, that at the end of that long supply line they serve readers who so value the independent information, appreciate the diversions — and count on the connection.
It certainly is to me.
Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States. Ernie Gates’ blog can be found at stripes.com/blogs