By: Allan Wolper
Melvin W. Russell, then acting director of Defense Media Activity — the Pentagon propaganda machine — stood in front of a nervous gaggle of Stars and Stripes journalists in early March and tried to calm them down.
Yes, Russell said, Stripes was being moved to the military’s information offices at Fort Meade, Md., from its civilian location in the National Press Building in downtown Washington, D.C. But no, reporters wouldn’t face any censorship problems once they got there.
Someone in the crowd asked, “How can we be sure they will leave us alone?” Russell didn’t miss a beat.
“We’ll deal with any of the issues as they come up,” Russell said. “I’ve told them that Stars and Stripes is independent and has to remain that way.”
Stripes staffers wanted to believe Russell, someone they apparently trusted, but they had heard rumors that he was retiring. And on April 30, he did just that. There is no word on whether the person replacing him will be as dedicated to protecting the paper’s independence.
The men and women in the room focused their attention on publisher Max D. Lederer, editorial director Terry Leonard, and managing editor Howard Witt.
The editorial leadership stood silent, trying not to look sandbagged. But they had been. The decision to relocate the Stripes editorial offices to Fort Meade was made last November by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, without any consultation with Stars and Stripes officials, according to sources.
Stripes reporters already know Panetta is a walking censorship stamp. In April, he unsuccessfully tried to stop the Los Angeles Times from publishing photos of American soldiers posing with the mangled corpses of insurgent bombers in Afghanistan, according to the newspaper.
“Those kind of photos are used by the enemy to incite violence, and lives have been lost as a result of the publication of similar photos,” Panetta said in a news conference shortly after the photos were published.
The soldier who leaked that story to the Times had a reason: He told the paper he wanted the world to know that American officers were guilty of a “breakdown in security, discipline, and professionalism.”
The whistle-blowing soldier was concerned that the officers in his command, through their behavior, might endanger the lives of the men and women he was charged with protecting. I have to wonder whether that soldier, aware of the controversy surrounding Stripes, was afraid of sending those pictures to the military newspaper.
So now, Stars and Stripes journalists are focused on their unsettling future, worrying about who Panetta might name as the next head of DMA, and whether he or she has orders to keep the pesky Stripes journalists from straying from the Obama administration company line.
“Melvin Russell would never even think of censoring us,” Leonard said in a telephone interview from the newspaper’s offices in Germany. “But we don’t know who will replace him. There is a perception that if we move to Fort Meade, it would have a chilling effect on our reporters.”
The announced timing of the move has a conspiratorial ring to it. It was planned a year before the presidential election. It’s a way to keep the Stripes journalists — who seem to enjoy embarrassing the administration they work for, be it Democratic or Republican — from becoming too aggressive.
There is much to worry about.
The Stripes journalists know all about Fort Meade. They talk about the computer and telephone systems that could eavesdrop on every phone call or email message. There is talk now of putting Stars and Stripes on the same server as the propagandists.
There is concern that stripes.com might be placed on the same website as Defense Media Activity and that the Stripes cubicles will be set up next to the Department of Defense public relations people. There is concern about soldiers who routinely call Stripes with complaints about command mistakes and mishaps in Iraq and Afghanistan, about problems they face after being discharged, about equipment that doesn’t work, about medical care at the Veterans Administration.
“Soldiers call us all the time,” one staffer said. “And they’ll find out soon enough if people are listening in on the calls or intercepting their emails. They’ll stop calling us.”
Should Stars and Stripes wind up at Fort Meade, soldiers on the base would most likely want to bombard the reporters with calls about the horrific toxic conditions at the base — conditions so bad the federal Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit demanding it be cleaned up — an extraordinarily expensive process that began in December 2010.
But the Fort Meade soldiers would be wasting their time. Stars and Stripes reporters are not permitted to cover issues on bases they work on.
Why does the Pentagon suddenly want to move Stripes? The stated reason is classic Beltway bull. The Pentagon says it will save $1 million in rent it pays for the current space in the National Press Building. The Pentagon, which spends billions in overruns, is getting cost conscious. But does it cut some of the tanks it doesn’t need or the planes that don’t fly? Nope it goes after Stars and Stripes.
Then there is this:
The decision to move the Army newspaper into the home of the Pentagon censors to save money recalls memories of another military financial decision that embarrassed both the Army and Stars and Stripes.
That was in 2006 when the Pentagon dipped into the Stars and Stripes budget and spent $495,000 on a public relations contract for the Army, according to numerous published reports. The move gave the distinct impression that Stars and Stripes was a totally owned, censored arm of the Army. In April, the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the bipartisan House Armed Services Committee inserted in its 2013 budget resolution a demand that Stars and Stripes offices be kept at the National Press Building. Here’s hoping the powers at the Pentagon will read it.
Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and host of Conversations with Allan Wolper on wbgo.org/wolper, a National Public Radio affiliate in the New York area.