Union soldiers in the Civil War requisitioned the local printing press after they captured the town of Bloomfield, Missouri, in November 1861 and quickly produced the first edition of a newspaper they called The Stars and Stripes. It was to be a journal for the troops by the troops, they said.
Now, more than 150 years later, that same newspaper is on life-support — a victim of changing trends in readership, government belt-tightening, shifting priorities in the Pentagon and a quirk in the congressional funding process.
The Trump administration left the $15.5 million normally allocated to the editorially-independent newspaper out of the Pentagon’s annual budget request for the fiscal year, and the papers defenders face a Sept. 30 deadline to keep the money flowing.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters the money was needed to fund more critical programs in the Pentagon. Officials on Capitol Hill said the Defense Department has requested a plan to cease publishing Stars and Stripes on Sept. 30, 2020 and “completely dissolve” the organization by Jan. 31, 2021.
USA Today Friday reported a memo to that effect has gone out for the paper to have a shutdown plan in place by Sept. 15 and prepare to vacate its offices and bureaus worldwide by the end of the month.
But the paper’s defenders are not going down without a fight.
“Stars and Stripes is an essential part of our nation’s freedom of the press that serves the very population charged with defending that freedom,” a bipartisan group of senators said in a Sept. 2, 2020 letter to Mr. Esper, urging him to reinstate the newspaper’s funding.
“The $15.5 million currently allocated for the publication of Stars and Stripes is only a tiny fraction of your department’s annual budget and cutting it would have a significantly negative impact on military families and a negligible impact on the department’s bottom line,” the senators wrote.
Stars and Stripes’ online edition Friday carried a straight news story on the letter, along with coverage of new COVID-19 outbreaks in the ranks, the controversy of recent remarks by President Trump on the military, and the easing of travel restrictions for U.S. Army personnel in Japan.
Michael Mastrangelo first came across a copy of Stars and Stripes in 1968 when he was a young Army platoon leader in Vietnam. He called it “an invaluable tool” for ordinary soldiers stationed very far from home.
“When we were in places like Korea, Vietnam, Europe or wherever, it really was the only English source of information we could get,” said Mr. Mastrangelo, who retired after 30 years as a full-bird colonel.
By the time a copy of Stars and Stripes reached him in the jungle, it was usually a couple of days late.
“That didn’t make any difference. It was a source of comfort,” he said. “It got you back up snuff with the news that was going on.”
Except for letters from home and the occasional Armed Forces Radio broadcast, Stars and Stripes was how Mr. Mastrangelo learned about some of the biggest events of 1968, including the Manson Family killings and Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon.
“I thought it was a very, very worthwhile tool to keep morale up,” he said. “It kept the troops advised of what was happening.”
But the slowly turning gears on Capitol Hill may be working against the newspaper’s future.
The House version of the massive 2021 defense policy bill authorizes $15.6 million to keep the paper funded, but the Senate version of the same bill does not. Meanwhile, a separate stopgap spending bill Congress is working on to avoid a government shutdown by Sept. 30 that funds the Pentagon is also very much in doubt.
The senators, including Republican conservatives such as John Bozeman of Montana and Jerry Moran of Kansas, warn the paper may need to shut down for a lack of funding on Sept. 30 even though the defense authorization bill will ultimately authorize the money — months later.
Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer told the military news website Task & Purpose that the paper could continue publishing if the money is included in the September 30 stopgap spending bill.
Stars and Stripes has published continuously since World War II. Its alumni include major names in journalism such as two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin, whose characters “Willie and Joe” typified the exhausted, war weary dog-face soldiers he saw on the front lines. Andy Rooney, a longtime humorist and commentator on “60 Minutes,” also got his start in journalism at Stars and Stripes. More recent ex-Stars and Stripes reporters include Gustav Hasford, whose Vietnam novel “The Short-Timers” was later adapted into the feature film “Full Metal Jacket” by Stanley Kubrick.
After news of the funding cut-off was announced, the publisher’s advisory board at Stars and Stripes launched an advocacy campaign to ensure that Congress restores the cuts proposed by the Pentagon.
“The cuts would mean curtailing of Stars and Stripes’ historic role — serving troops in war zones. Troops now in harm’s way in the Middle East, with few other forms of outside information, would be deprived of the paper,” Reid MacCluggage, chairman of the board and a former editor of The Day in New London, Conn., said in a statement.
He said there were literally hundreds of stories published by Stars and Stripes in recent months that no other news organization can or will do.
“Stripes knows its audience better than anyone else,” Mr. MacCluggage said.
Mr. Mastrangelo said he subscribed to Stars and Stripes every time his Army career took him overseas. Now retired, he wasn’t aware that the Pentagon was slashing its funding.
“It’s a relatively small chunk of change in the overall budget. Given some of the things the Army spends on today, I find Stars and Stripes to still be very valuable,” he said.
Stars and Stripes also is a victim of the decline in readership that has affected most other newspapers in the country. Texas veteran S.D. Panter spent more than a decade in the Marine Corps, with tours in the Balkans and Iraq as a helicopter door gunner.
Stars and Stripes, he said, was for “the old guys,” he remembered.
He may have picked up a copy at some point during one of his multiple combat tours, but the venerable newspaper was never really part of his military experience, he said.
“It’s not that I think it’s not worthwhile or anything like that, it’s just that I never really saw it,” he said.
During his deployments, his fellow Marines tended to get their information from online sources, such as Facebook. Like most other newspapers, Stars and Stripes has a digital edition.
Providing important information for the troops is now even more challenging than it was in his day, Mr. Panter said.
“If it’s not on TikTok or SnapChat, you might as well forget about it,” he said.
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