Even for those of us who are all too wearily familiar with President Donald Trump’s disdain for journalists, his administration’s latest attack on the free press is a bit of a jaw-dropper.
In a heretofore unpublicized recent memo, the Pentagon delivered an order to shutter Stars and Stripes, a newspaper that has been a lifeline and a voice for American troops since the Civil War. The memo orders the publisher of the news organization (which now publishes online as well as in print) to present a plan that “dissolves the Stars and Stripes” by Sept. 15 including a “specific timeline for vacating government-owned/leased space worldwide.”
“The last newspaper publication (in all forms) will be September 30, 2020,” writes Col. Paul Haverstick Jr., the memo’s author.
Stars and Stripes’ long history
The first Stars and Stripes rolled off presses Nov. 9, 1861, in Bloomfield, Missouri when forces headed by Ulysses Grant overran the tiny town on the way to Cape Girardeau. A group of Grant’s troops who had been pressmen before the war set up shop at a local newspaper office abandoned by its Confederate sympathizer publisher. Since then Stars and Stripes have launched the careers of famous journalists such as cartoonist Bill Mauldin and TV commentator Andy Rooney. And its independence from the Pentagon brass has been guaranteed by such distinguished military leaders at Gens. John G. Pershing, George Marshall, and Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower once reprimanded Gen. George Patton for trying to censor Mauldin cartoons he didn’t like.
Today Stars and Stripes is printed at sites around the world and delivered daily to troops — even those on the front lines, where the internet is spotty or inaccessible. As the “local paper” for the military, it provides intensive and critical coverage of issues that are important to members of the nation’s armed services and “cuts through political and military brass BS talking points,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a Marine veteran, told Military.com.
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As if an attack on the free press were not enough, the Trump administration’s rush to shutter Stars and Stripes also raises constitutional questions.
The memo ordering the publication’s dissolution claims the administration has the authority to make this move under the president’s fiscal year 2021 defense department budget request. It zeroed out the $15.5 million annual subsidy for Stars and Stripes. But Congress, which under the Constitution has the power to make decisions about how the public’s money is spent, has not yet approved the president’s request.
In fact, the version the House approved earlier this summer explicitly overruled the decision to pull the plug on Stars and Stripes, restoring funding for the paper.
Pushing back to keep Stars and Stripes
So far, the Senate hasn’t acted. But in a letter released earlier this week, 15 members of the chamber, including combat veteran Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and four Republicans, called on Defense Secretary Mark Esper to “take steps to preserve the funding prerogatives of Congress before allowing any such disruption to take place.”
In a separate letter, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, makes a similar request. “As a veteran who has served overseas, I know the value Stars and Stripes brings to its readers,” he wrote, telling Esper that shutting down the paper before the Senate acts would be “premature.”
It also seems unusual. Normally, when Congress has failed to approve a budget for an agency at the end of a fiscal year (an all-too-common occurrence), a “continuing resolution,” maintains funding at the past year’s levels until the lawmakers act. But the Pentagon memo to Stars and Stripes demands a plan for dissolution anyway and says “the last date of the paper will be determined” once the continuing resolution expires.
The eagerness to kill Stars and Stripes is hard to fathom. As the senators note in their letter to Esper, the $15.5 million saved by eliminating the newspaper’s subsidy would have a “negligible impact” on the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget.
But it would have an enormously negative impact on the paper’s more than 1.3 million readers. It would eliminate a symbol of the U.S. commitment to press freedom, flout the judgment of generations of military leaders and usurp the authority that the Constitution gives Congress to make decisions about how the government spends money.
The Stars and Stripes was born in the midst of a war to decide what America stood for. Now it looks like another such battle will decide its fate.