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OPINION

What TVs show on military installations is big news

By RON ROMAN | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: May 9, 2019

Imagine this: You walk into a food court on an overseas U.S. military installation expecting to kick back and see your favorite TV news show, but find all TVs screening professional wrestling. You politely ask the food court manager to switch one TV to the regular news channel broadcast at that time of day. He politely says, “No.” You ask why, and he replies: “Illegal!” You go, “What?” (OK, cut the guy some slack. He’s Korean; English is not his first language). He leaves, and returns with an official-looking memo. It’s from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service worldwide headquarters in the U.S., the largest retailer (general department store) for the U.S. military, with 2,700 outlets worldwide. It says that now, “News channels should not be shown on common area TVs due to their divisive political nature.” “Political” TV channels (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News) will henceforth be replaced with sports.

You are not hallucinating. This is what American corporate policy, part of it at least, has degenerated into: a disgusting display of blatant censorship. Worse yet, it’s still going at this time (early May).

As a lifelong member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I find this policy particularly offensive.

This happened to me in early April at Camp Humphreys, America’s flagship military installation in South Korea. Bad enough things like this go on at ordinary civilian facilities, but at military ones? Whatever happened to living in the “Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave”? Or should that now be “Land of the Mind-Shackled, Home of the Cowardly”?

What’s happening to America? What message does this send to the world and at home about America’s commitment to honor our First Amendment for freedom of speech and inquiry, especially those in the vanguard to defend it, our military servicemembers? That all Americans, military and civilian alike, are now so juvenile that they can’t be expected to restrain themselves in public places when exposed to oh-so-much “divisive” political news? Has the need to infantilize an already dumbed-down America become so pervasive? Shame on you, AAFES!

This policy is not good for keeping the public, and especially the American military community, updated as to latest political news developments, “divisive” or not. (Ask yourself: What’s not “divisive” in life? Sports can’t be “divisive”?)

This policy is truly a disservice to our brave men and women in uniform, no matter what AAFES says about “Proudly Serving Those Who Serve.” How are they being served? By coughing up a hefty dose of news censorship? Is that supposed to be good for them? How are they supposed to form their own judgments as civilian-turned-military volunteers as to what’s going on around them? Make up their minds when casting their votes?

What do we stand for? Guess now it should be the right to watch only professional wrestling around the clock.

In an apparent bid to defuse the controversy, according to latest reports, to play only sports in lieu of any political broadcasts is going to be only “general guidance” and a “recommendation,” not AAFES policy anymore. If that’s to be the case, word hasn’t gotten around to the managers of the food courts I frequent. I had just asked for one TV to be switched to a news channel only to be told by the manager that this censorship is, in fact, still policy.

AAFES’ senior public affairs manager was paraphrased by NPR as saying the policy “reflected a desire to appeal to as many customers as possible.” Nonsense. In the past, only two TVs (out of eight) in the food court I often visit ever broadcast the news channels mentioned above; now there are none. How is that supposed to “appeal to as many customers as possible”?

Some servicemembers have been quoted as saying the policy is good because it keeps “divisive” news from infiltrating the military’s public domain. Remind them to reread the full Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, which are things they took an oath to uphold with their lives. If they’re offended by “divisive” political commentary, tell them nobody is forcing them to watch it.

Ron Roman has taught English and the humanities for the University of Maryland University College all over the Indo-Pacific Command since 1996.

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