Stripes editors seek answers on ASY link
ARLINGTON, Va. — Stars and Stripes’ top editors have formally requested the “immediate, full and complete disclosure” of the extent of the newspaper’s relationship with America Supports You.
Managing Editor Doug Clawson and Executive Editor Robb Grindstaff requested disclosure of the documents in a letter sent Dec. 8 to Stripes acting publisher Max Lederer and Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for public liaison and internal communications. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other members of his staff were copied on the letter.
Barber deferred comment on the letter Friday to Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, who said Barber had offered to meet with Grindstaff and Clawson.
“She offered to meet with us off the record and on background, and that will not suffice,” said Clawson, noting that he declined the conditions via e-mail. “We can’t be put in a position to learn information that we can’t share with the staff or the readers.”
The editors say disclosure of the documents is critical to determining the extent of the business relationship and to maintain credibility with readers. The partnership with the public affairs program, they say, threatens the newspaper’s integrity as an independent, First Amendment newspaper operating within the Defense Department.
“Unless this information would threaten national security, refusing to release these documents is puzzling. These are public documents that any taxpayer should have the right to look at,” Clawson and Grindstaff wrote in their Dec. 8 letter to Lederer and Pentagon officials.
A military journalists group also has joined ranks with the editors and has asked the Defense Department, on behalf of Stars and Stripes, for documents on the extent of the newspaper’s relationship with America Supports You.
Military Reporters and Editors filed the Freedom of Information Act request on Monday.
The Inspector General’s office has been conducting an audit of the business relationship between the newspaper and America Supports You.
Lederer has said nothing is improper or illegal about the newspaper’s partnership with America Supports You, but DOD officials have declined to release the amount of Stripes’ expenditures related to America Supports You because that is part of the ongoing review and audit. Lederer said money was transferred to Stripes from American Forces Information Service for the expenses related to America Supports You.
America Supports You is a Defense Department public affairs program that gives publicity to nonprofit groups that support U.S. troops. The program also sponsors entertainment events and produces and distributes America Supports you promotional items — some through Stripes’ marketing arm.
So far, Stripes has learned the newspaper awarded a $499,000 purchase agreement for the public relations firm Susan Davis International to promote America Supports You; and it awarded a $311,650 contract to Semel Media to develop and design Web sites for America Supports You and the Defense Department.
Stripes’ top editors have said they were unaware of the extent of the newspaper’s relationship with America Supports You.
Lederer has said that no efforts were made to hide the relationship, adding that the paper’s top editors could have known more about the partnership had they asked.
But in a Nov. 19 message to the Stripes staff, Lederer acknowledged there was “insufficient discussion” within Stripes about the newspaper’s partnership with America Supports You and added the relationship will end.
“The business side thoroughly discussed the business opportunities and leveraged them to the extent it made sense, but there were no specific discussions with the Editorial leadership to determine if there might be an impact on our journalistic independence,” Lederer wrote in the message.
On Nov. 26, Stripes’ midlevel editors in Europe and Asia sent an e-mail to Barber asking her to authorize Lederer to release information on the extent of Stripes’ financial relationship with America Supports You, or to provide the information herself.
Barber replied in a Dec. 4 e-mail saying Defense Department policy prevented the information from being released.
“As you probably know, it is against DOD policy to release any contract information under a certain [dollar value] threshold,” Barber said in the e-mail.
In a Dec. 5 follow-up e-mail the midlevel editors asked Barber to cite the DOD policy to which she referred or send it in full. She had not responded to that request as of Friday, according to Joseph Giordono, Mideast bureau chief.