Stars and Stripes should move, but not to Fort Meade
Stars and Stripes ombudsman
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says it’s too late this year to move Stars and Stripes’ independent news operation to the home of Pentagon-controlled public affairs at Fort Meade, Md. But he wants to see it happen next year.
Instead, the objective should be to relocate Stripes to government-owned space other than at Fort Meade. That would protect Stripes’ credibility and its mission as a First Amendment publication while also achieving the common goal of eliminating the cost of a commercial lease.
That’s not how Panetta sees it.
“I do not believe moving Stars and Stripes to Fort Meade will have any impact on its editorial independence,” Panetta wrote to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. “In these fiscally austere times, the Department must seek ways to be more efficient and this move would save the department more than $1 million a year in commercial lease costs.”
Echoing the position expressed by the leadership of the Defense Media Activity since this relocation was proposed early this year, Panetta wrote, “Where they sit should not have any influence over what they write and I don’t believe this move would have any impact on the product they now deliver to our troops.”
Levin’s staff provided the July 3 letter this week. Panetta was responding to a Feb. 29 letter from Levin, in which the chairman relayed the Stripes staff’s concern that moving Stripes’ central operations from the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., to the home of command-centered DOD media would compromise the newsroom’s independence and encourage the damaging perception among readers that Stripes’ content is under military control. In his letter, Levin called the staff’s concern “well placed” and said it justified a search for alternatives.
That remains true. Although the Pentagon and DMA leaders appear to be focused on accomplishing the move to Fort Meade next year, the search for alternative, government-owned space should continue — with added energy and determination.
As Panetta indicated, it doesn’t make sense for Stars and Stripes to pay for commercial office space in the current environment of significant expense cuts. He’ll find no argument there. That’s the position of nearly everyone involved, including Stripes Publisher Max D. Lederer Jr.
Smart, frugal fiscal management is essential to Stripes, as it is to any news operation dealing with the shifting economics of the news business these days. But it’s only part of the answer.
The long view should also recognize that Stripes’ credibility with the troops and its historic, hard-earned reputation for independence is a precious asset that would indeed be damaged by co-location with the center of command-oriented, command-serving public affairs operations.
For now, a one-year renewal of the National Press Building lease seems to be in the works. But that’s temporary. Citing language in the House-passed 2013 Defense Authorization Act that would block the move to Fort Meade, Panetta asked for Levin’s support to remove that obstacle when the defense bill goes to conference, so the move can proceed next year.
"The Department strongly supports the Stars and Stripes mission even as we continue to look for ways to achieve savings during this period of fiscal austerity," Bryan Whitman, the DMA's Interim Director, said Thursday.
In his letter to Levin, which also went to ranking minority committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Panetta did express support for Stars and Stripes and took note of its unique role.
“Stars and Stripes will continue to be a major contributor to the department,” he wrote. “It produces a unique paper with a long history of keeping our troops and their families informed. Stars and Stripes tells the story that no one else does and we look forward to continuing that tradition.”
Telling the story that no one else does sometimes means telling the story somebody doesn’t want told. That’s what it means to describe Stars and Stripes as a First Amendment publication.
The best way to continue that tradition is not to have the independent journalists work in the shadow of the DOD public affairs operation in the DMA building on Fort Meade. It’s to do away with the rent but also reinforce Stripes’ legacy of independence by moving to other government-owned space in the D.C. area.
Providing a credible, independent report for the troops and their families is indeed a proud tradition, but it’s even more. It’s Stripes’ mission.
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. For links associated with this column, please go to Ernie Gates’ blog.