Defense Dept. orders Stars and Stripes newspaper to shut down

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Posted: Sep 4, 2020 2:50 PM
Updated: Sep 4, 2020 2:50 PM

The future of Stars and Stripes, the military's editorially independent newspaper which covers issues relevant to members of the armed forces, hangs in the balance.

The Defense Department, which notified the news organization in February that it intended to cut funding, said in an August 4 memo to the outlet's publisher that it had "decided to discontinue the publication of Stars and Stripes."

The memo, first reported Friday by USA Today and independently obtained by CNN, instructed Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer to provide the Defense Department a plan that "dissolves" the organization by January 31, 2021. The memo said Stars and Stripes should cease publishing by September 30, 2020, when the fiscal year ends.

Stars and Stripes, which was first produced during the Civil War by Union soldiers, is partially funded by Congress. In its 2021 budget, the House specifically included funding for the publication. The Senate, however, has not released its appropriations bill for 2021.

If Congress chooses to fund Stars and Stripes in the 2021 fiscal year, the outlet will continue publishing. But while Congress wrestles over a 2021 budget, the Defense Department has stepped in and ordered Stars and Stripes to shutter.

After the Defense Department communicated closure instructions to Stars and Stripes, Sen. Lindsey Graham came to the publication's defense, writing a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper saying that it would be "premature" to shutter the outlet "before the Senate has had the opportunity to voice its support."

"I urge you not to take actions that would deprive individuals of this publication until Congress has appropriately completed the appropriations process," Graham wrote in the August 26 letter. "Given the history and the importance of the Stars and Stripes to the members of the Armed Forces, their families, and civilian employees, I believe this request is more than reasonable."

A spokesperson for Graham said that Esper has not yet responded to his letter. A spokesperson for the Defense Department did not provide a comment to CNN on Graham's letter to Esper.

Lederer, the Stars and Stripes publisher, told CNN on Friday that the future of the outlet is "very uncertain" and that he is prepared for both outcomes.

"From an organizational perspective, I am ensuring that we maintain the capacity that we continue operations if that is the decision by Congress and the President," Lederer said. "Which is difficult when you're getting so close to having to maybe close."

The hope is that Congress will pass a continuing resolution that temporarily provides funding for the outlet while it determines the budget for 2021.

"My instinct right now is that we will still be publishing come October," Lederer said.

Regardless, Lederer described the uncertainty hanging over Stars and Stripes as "unsettling for a news organization" and said "the anxiety level is extremely high" among staffers.

"There is a lot of concern," Lederer said, telling CNN that he has had some staffers jump to other publications because of it.

Stars and Stripes receives approximately 35% of its budget from the federal government, a spokesperson for the outlet told CNN earlier this year. The rest of its funding comes from sales, subscriptions, and advertising.

Lederer told CNN on Friday that he was not sure, however, whether Stars and Stripes could use revenue generated through its own means to continue publishing should the government cut funding.

"That's a little unclear," Lederer said. "There is revenue that we can go forward for a couple months."

Ernie Gates, the ombudsman for Stars and Stripes, told CNN Friday that shutting the outlet down would "be fatal interference and permanent censorship of a unique First Amendment organization that has served U.S. troops reliably for generations."

"To shut down Stars and Stripes on Oct. 1 would defy the expressed will of the House and pre-empt full consideration by the Senate," Gates said in an email. "There's every reason to expect that the federal government will operate under a Continuing Resolution when the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Secretary Esper and the Defense Department should commit to continuing to fund Stars and Stripes under such a scenario -- and when Congress completes the budget process, it should then make Stars and Stripes' funding ironclad."

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