U.S. extends Patriot mission in southern Turkey
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is reviewing the need for some of the most prominent DOD-funded media products — AFN, The Pentagon Channel, and Stars and Stripes.
The Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, which answers to the Secretary to Defense, has been tasked with reviewing all such media products.
“In this budget environment, we’re looking at everything,” said a Pentagon spokesman who asked not to be named.
An official with the office of the defense secretary referred queries back to Stars and Stripes and the Defense Media Activity.
“In the current fiscal climate, especially facing the continuing additional cuts from sequestration, a top-to-bottom review of DOD spending is to be expected,” said Stars and Stripes ombudsman Ernie Gates. “... But it’s also an environment in which a few well-placed people might opportunistically work out their personal preferences. In Stripes’ case, that could mean someone who doesn’t like its independent reporting using the rationale of fiscal pressure to mask an entirely different intention — to eliminate an irritant.”
Max Lederer, Stars and Stripes’ publisher, said has been tasked with providing budget numbers and scenarios for cuts — sometimes given just hours to do so — but he has not been told “anything” about the purpose or extent of the review.
“When you get asked questions in a vacuum,” he said, “you get concerned.”
According to figures the Pentagon Comptroller’s office, the DMA, which oversees all three products, had an estimated $256 million budget for 2012, the last year such figures are available.
According to the document, the budget for overseas radio and television products is approximately $138 million. The Pentagon Channel falls under this category, though no figure is broken out.
Stars and Stripes’ estimated 2012 budget was just under $11 million.
While the American Forces Network and The Pentagon Channel are command-information outlets, Stars and Stripes is editorially independent, staffed almost exclusively by civilians, and with a civilian ombudsman who answers to Congress.
That point was not lost on Pete McCollaum, a DOD civilian at U.S. Army Africa in Vicenza.
“Professionally, I have a habitual dislike for [Public Affairs] officers, as they are the propaganda mouthpiece for the commands, yet they see themselves as lilly white, above the fray and pure as the driven snow, McCollaum said Tuesday. “Stripes on the other hand is willing to touch on topics that, politically, the PAO would never touch. ... Without an independent press, we are all screwed.”
Some in the public affairs community see the value of it, also.
“I think Stripes performs an extremely important role for both our personnel stationed overseas and for helping conduct my mission,” said Maj. Michael Weisman, a public affairs officer with the 173rd Airborne in Vicenza. “Having Stripes cover the great things the brigade is doing helps us connect with the American public. The independent, unbiased reputation of Stripes means that reporting can reach a nation-wide audience through wire services and the Internet.”
Others with a Pentagon/public relations background were less enthusiastic for Stars and Stripes to continue.
Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Price Floyd took to Twitter to ask a pointed question: “Do we need a government funded media outlet like @starsandstripes when news & media is ubiquitous/free/available anywhere/time?”
When some responded positively about Stars and Stripes, he rephrased the question three more times, finally asking whether it could even be discussed.
Asked Wednesday, senators with the Armed Services Committee said they had not yet been apprised of any such review.
“I had just heard rumors,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “but I think it would be a terrible mistake, I really do. The men and women who are serving get a lot of their information this way. It’s a great conduit to spread information to the men and women who are serving all over the world. Armed Forces Network, among many other things, does sports, which all of our men and women love. So I think it would be crazy.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., agreed.
“I don’t like the idea. I certainly acknowledge [the Pentagon has] some really difficult choices ahead, and I’d want to look at it, but I think an independent editorial voice like Stars and Stripes provides is pretty darn important for transparency and accountability and oversight in the military.”
American Forces Network can trace its radio roots to 1942, with television debuting in 1954. It reaches
Launched in 2004, the Pentagon Channel, aired on AFN but also available on United States cable systems, debuted in 2004.
Stars and Stripes, while being briefly published during the Civil War and again during World War I, has been continually publishing a daily newspaper overseas since 1942.
Some in the overseas communities said they get most of the sports and entertainment online, the availability of which is said to be one of the rationales of those looking to drop AFN.
Many hope AFN survives, largely because of the sports content.
“AFN Europe is important to me because I keep up with all the sports,” said Spc. Dominique Walker, 22, a human resources specialist at Kleber Kaserne, Germany. “It’s motivation to me because I play sports here, and I keep up with the scores and it helps me out with my game to better myself, in basketball, in particular.”
Rumi Nielson-Green, chief of public affairs for U.S. Army Europe, said while she appreciates Stars and Stripes’ utility in getting important command information to the communities, it also brings the news, “good, bad or neutral.
“[N]o one outside of Stripes covers those things that are meaningful in the quality of life and the day-to-day interest of the people on these bases forward.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Chris Carroll, J. Taylor Rushing, Jennifer Svan, Matt Millham, John Vandiver and Nancy Montgomery contributed to this report.