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Defense bill would continue Stars and Stripes' funding

Spc. Angel Ruszkiewicz, 21, a combat camera specialist from Milwaukee, Wi., reads a Stars and Stripes at the passenger terminal on a coalition base in Erbil, Iraq, on Monday, Dec. 23, 2019, before a flight to Syria.

CHAD GARLAND/STARS AND STRIPES

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 4, 2020

WASHINGTON — The compromise Defense Department spending and policy bill lawmakers revealed Thursday would fund Stars and Stripes in 2021, maintaining the news organization that the Pentagon sought to close earlier this year.

Stars and Stripes would receive about $15.5 million in the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which lawmakers made public late Thursday after weeks of negotiations to merge Senate- and House-passed versions of the legislation. If it becomes law, the bill would provide the same amount of funding that Stars and Stripes received for 2020, and it would also require the defense secretary to coordinate with the news organization on a report "detailing the business case analysis for various options for Stars and Stripes" to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees by March 1.

But the $740.5 billion bill’s future is uncertain. Senate and House leadership have signaled their chambers would quickly vote on the bill. President Donald Trump, however, has vowed a veto of the bill for its inclusion of a provision that would strip Army bases of names honoring Confederate generals from the Civil War and its exclusion of a measure to repeal a law that shields technology companies from being held liable for their users’ postings. Lawmakers dismissed Trump’s 11th-hour demand that they repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the NDAA, saying it was unrelated to defense and inappropriate to tack onto the legislation.

The initial Senate and House versions of the NDAA were passed during the summer via veto-proof majorities before negotiators forged the final version that reconciled the differences in the two bills.

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper proposed cutting all funding for Stars and Stripes in the Pentagon’s annual budget request to Congress in February, telling reporters then that the money saved would be better used toward modernizing weaponry. Stripes’ leadership said the cut would be fatal to the organization.

The NDAA version the House passed in the summer included funding for Stars and Stripes, while the Senate-passed version did not include funding for the news agency.

However, just days after the Pentagon issued orders for Stars and Stripes to prepare to stop publication by Sept. 30, Trump — facing backlash over news reports that he privately disparaged fallen service members, which he denied — tweeted Sept. 4 that he would not allow Stars and Stripes’ funding to be cut during his presidency.

The Pentagon rescinded its order to shutter the news organization about one week later.

Stars and Stripes first appeared during the Civil War, and it has been published continuously since World War II.

Stars and Stripes is part of the Pentagon’s Defense Media Activity, yet the news organization is congressionally guaranteed First Amendment protections and it is editorially independent from Defense Department oversight. The $15.5 million annual Pentagon stipend makes up about half of Stars and Stripes’ budget and is primarily used to print and distribute the newspaper every day to troops around the world, including in war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The rest of Stars and Stripes’ budget comes from advertising and subscriptions.

Amid the uncertainty of the organization’s future, bipartisan groups of lawmakers urged the Pentagon to ensure Stars and Stripes was not closed. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., penned a letter to Esper in August urging he reverse his proposal to defund Stars and Stripes, writing it was “an essential part of our nation’s freedom of the press that serves the very population charged with defending that freedom.”

In early September, 15 senators — four Republicans and 11 Democrats — followed with another letter asking Esper to ensure Stars and Stripes would continue publishing.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC