ARLINGTON, Va. — Stars and Stripes is parting ways with America Supports You, the Defense Department program that gives publicity to groups supporting U.S. servicemembers.

The decision, disclosed Friday by Stripes acting publisher Max Lederer, comes amid a DOD Inspector General’s office audit of Stripes’ expenditures related to America Supports You.

“My understanding at this point is that the program is in transition, and that OSD/PA (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs) is going to go a different direction with it and that Stripes’ participation will come to an end in the upcoming months,” Lederer said.

He expected the relationship to end within six months.

Founded in 2004, America Supports You is a DOD program that gives publicity to nonprofit groups that support U.S. troops and tries to connect troops to those organizations.

Stripes has served as a conduit for money used to fund America Supports You, according to a Stripes official speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak on the issue. A DOD spokesman said that Stripes was fully reimbursed for all expenses.

The IG review of America Supports You has prompted an audit of American Forces Information Service, including Stars and Stripes, and Defense Department public affairs to see whether “management has established proper segregation of duties and effective internal controls,” according to a letter from the inspector general’s office.

Lederer said Friday there is nothing illegal or improper about Stripes’ relationship with America Supports You, but the Defense Department has declined to release the newspaper’s expenditures related to America Supports You because the matter is under review.

Both America Supports You and Stripes fall under the purview of Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications and public liaison.

The evolution of America Supports You to a standalone program has been a long time coming.

In a memo dated Sept. 29, 2006, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England laid out proposed changes to the America Supports You organizational structure and management, including establishing a “[p]rogram [e]lement to increase visibility, support and oversight of ASY.”

However, former assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Dorrance Smith chose not to implement the proposed changes, Barber said Monday.

Smith could not be reached for comment by deadline Monday.

With Smith’s departure last month, England assumed control of personnel and budget issues for public affairs, an Oct. 30 memo from England says.

“We’re poised and ready to implement these activities,” Barber said.

As for why the changes are only being implemented now, “I think the Department of Defense is a pretty busy place,” Barber said.

Asked Friday whether the IG audits played a role in the transition, Barber said, “Oh, heavens no!”

The journalism risksStripes’ executive editor, managing editor and former editorial director all said last month they were unaware of the extent to which money was being channeled through the newspaper for America Supports You until the news staff began looking into the IG review.

Such a relationship, not documented in the paper’s strategic plan last year, could cause staff and readers to question the paper’s objectivity, editors said.

A journalism scholar agreed.

“The fact that money was channeled through Stripes apparently without the public’s knowledge raises ethical issues about the newspaper’s journalistic independence and integrity,” said Bob Steele, of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“The independence of Stars and Stripes as a journalism organization is essential and must be constantly reiterated and practiced,” Steele said Friday. “If there is any question about the nature of funding internal within the news organization or funding in relation to a Defense Department program, then that independence can be jeopardized.”

Asked Monday why he would put Stripes in this situation, former publisher Tom Kelsch said that at the time, he didn’t give the matter any thought.

He assured an editor that there were no “covert dealings,” and said Barber was “very good to us,” and that “if there were things we could do for Allison, we should do them.”

He said he thought that this was a good program for the troops. He said “This is my doing. I told [Lederer] what to do, and he did it.

“But I made the decision. I’m not ready to accept it was wrong to do it.”

Lederer said Friday that Stripes’ relationship with America Supports You was never a secret and no efforts were made to hide it.

He noted that Stripes has sold America Supports You merchandise on the Stripes Web site for years.

“Secondly, from the initiation of the program — of our relationship with the program — we had dog tags that were co-branded for America Supports You on one side and Stars and Stripes on the other side given out to the general public, some [7,000 to] 10,000 in the first Freedom Walk a couple years ago — that’s a pretty open public acknowledgment of the relationship,” Lederer said.

Executive editor Robb Grindstaff disagreed.

“To equate selling ASY dog tags with moving hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars through Stripes to operate a DOD outreach program requires a bit of a leap,” Grindstaff said.

“Whether this was proper or improper financially is up to the IG to decide,” he said. “The goal of the editors is only to ensure full disclosure of any activity that might cause our readers to question the independence and credibility of their newspaper.”

Stripes’ relationship with America Supports You prompted several midlevel editors to ask the committee looking for the newspaper’s new editor to postpone the search pending the outcome of the IG’s audit.

Kelsch, who is heading the search committee, said Friday that he disagreed.

“This is exactly the time that we need a strong editorial leadership, and to put this off indefinitely pending the IG review would be to the detriment of the newsroom and Stars and Stripes,” Kelsch said in a phone interview Friday.

Paper’s contract used for DOD Web development

ARLINGTON, Va. — Stars and Stripes in February issued a contract for more than $300,000 to a media strategy company to develop and design Web sites for America Supports You and DefenseLink, the Defense Department’s official Web site, according to documents obtained by the newspaper’s editorial staff.

The documents show that the Stripes contracting office in Tokyo awarded the contract to Semel Media, of Briarcliff Manor, New York, for $311,650. Semel was the firm that helped launch the Pentagon Channel in 2004.

The Semel contract has since expired, acting publisher Max Lederer said Friday.

Lederer said Stripes initially awarded the contract to gain more expertise on Web operations.

“We couldn’t afford it by ourselves, so we partnered and the — part of the partner was of course looking at DefenseLink and their other activities,” Lederer said. “As we went through that process, we didn’t see as much desire as we thought we would, and so we terminated the relationship.”

Last month, Stripes reported that the newspaper’s business office had signed a $499,000 delivery order in July 2006 with Susan Davis International, a Washington public relations firm, to promote and market the America Supports You program.

A Defense Department spokesman has declined to release the total Stripes expenditures for America Supports You because the matter is under review.

On Friday, Lederer said mechanisms are in place to allow entities such as Stars and Stripes to make such expenditures.

— Jeff Schogol

View the Semel contract (PDF)


Deliverables Timelines

The below timeline is based upon a January 24, 2007 kick off and an August 15, 2007 final deliverable.

Phase 0: Site Audit & Research Plan (6-1/2 weeks) Schedule: 24 Jan 07 – 12 Mar 07Detailed project plan with distinct presentation, approval and delivery dates. Research discussion guides / protocols.

Phase 1: Research & Synthesis (8 weeks) Schedule: 8 Mar 07 – 7 May 07Compilation of user observations and insights into an articulated design vision to drive design concepts.

Phase 2: Site Architecture (4 weeks) Schedule: 8 May 07 – 4 June 07Site architecture and navigation delivered in paper prototypes.

Phase 3: Site Design (12 weeks) Schedule: 5 June 07 – 27 Aug 07Primary pages delivered in Photoshop files, CSS and style guide format.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up