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Stars and Stripes Advisory Board

Living in Key West | Saving Stars and Stripes during Covid-19 isolation

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

09/15/2020

Stopped by a friend’s house early Tuesday morning to pick up a bag of fresh okra after the bi-weekly vet visit for Sarah the Cat 2. Pulled up the mask, rolled down the window and asked: So, what you got going this week?

For most, the combination of a regular job, kids in school, family to care for and assorted challenges to overcome defines our calendar. We mix in a measure of Covid-19 and hurricane season anxiety and hope for the best. That’s my life, too, with the addition of the “littles,” our twin foster kittens who bring the household pride up to Cat 7.

Oh, and I’ve been saving Stars and Stripes.

Stripes is the Congressionally created, independent news and information organization that has historically been known as the “soldier’s newspaper.”

I am a member of Stripes’ Publisher’s Advisory Board. The board and Stripes’ ombudsman have been working since February lobbying Congress to restore funding for Stripes. The House has done so and the Senate is expected to follow suit. But the budget approval process is months away. Department of Defense Secretary Mark Esper zeroed out all funding and ordered Stripes closed by the end of September. This September. There is bipartisan support in Congress to continue funding for Stripes and override DoD’s plans to shut it down.

In February, Stars and Stripes came head-to-head with the most destructive battle of its celebrated history. Claiming it had better places to spend its money than on an independent newspaper, the defense department cut $15 million in Stripes’ funding.

Just weeks before Covid-19 pushed every other headline off the nation’s front pages and websites and then shut down business and government, Esper made it clear: 15 million dollars in annual funding for Stripes had been erased from the Department of Defense budget.

That $15 million is decimal dust in DOD’s budget, but it is 50 percent of Stripes’ operating budget. A cut like that would shut down this storied news outlet. And then came the order to shut down by Sept. 30. It was clear the Department of Defense, taking its cues from a president determined to sideline journalism — even Stripes — wanted Stripes dead.

Stripes cannot lobby Congress on its own behalf, putting it at a significant disadvantage when it comes to funding. Instead, the Publisher’s Advisory Board and Stripes’ ombudsman stepped in.

We are an independent board of seven current and former journalists and publishers appointed by the Stars and Stripes’ publisher, Max Lederer. We committed ourselves to the advocacy, education and lobbying that would restore this crucial funding for Stars and Stripes

For eight months, the Publisher’s Advisory Board and Stripes’ ombudsman, Ernie Gates, have negotiated with Congress. We believe we will be successful, thanks in great measure to bipartisan support in the House and Senate lead by Sen. Diane Feinstein and supported by senators Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, Tammy Duckworth and Susan Collins among many others. It certainly helps that the president tweeted his support in early September, followed shortly by Sen. Mitch McConnell, who had ignored our approaches prior to Trump’s tweet.

From my Facebook page on Sept. 4: With a Tweet just a few minutes ago, (President Donald)Trump reversed the Department of Defense and SecDef Mark Esper’s decision to strip Stars and Stripes of all funding and close it down by the end of September. I’ll take whatever commitment we can get if it means Stripes continues to publish. This is a First Amendment challenge of the first order. From the New York Times: “The reversal came on a day when the White House was in full defensive mode over published reports that the president had disparaged American military personnel killed in the nation’s wars. A senior administration confirmed that Mr. Trump’s tweet came after aides had showed him news coverage that blamed him for shuttering Stars and Stripes, and so he decided to reverse the Pentagon spending cuts.”

As a journalist and former newspaper executive, I know the challenges and impossible choices that come with declining revenue streams. I know the chaos that comes when reduced resources mean reduced content and news coverage, reduced days of delivery and constricted circulation routes. Those were part of my daily to-do lists. And, yet, never once did I face the kinds of guaranteed chaos that will come to Stars and Stripes if the Department of Defense is able to implement its budget reductions without challenge.

On Sept. 10, the defense department rescinded its immediate shutdown order and instructed Stripes to prepare its 2021 fiscal year budget. That is good news, of course. But, officially, funding has not been restored in the Department of Defense budget. Until that funding is included via the appropriations process; until Congress approves that budget; and, until the president signs it, Stripes remains at risk.

The members of the Publisher’s Advisory Board believe Stars and Stripes remains essential to our troops deployed throughout the world. We believe its mission underpins our democracy and sustains the First Amendment. We will continue our fight to ensure Stars and Stripes pursues its first-hand reporting from bases around the world and flourishes as an unbiased, credible news source for America’s military.

Stripes is the soldier’s voice. We are the friends, supporters and benefactors of that voice. Let me be the voice for one such former soldier, Glenn Troester, who shared this with Stripes’ ombudsman, Ernie Gates:

“I am a decorated Vietnam combat veteran. I was also the OIC of the 23rd Public Info Detachment, 4th Infantry Division, in 1969 in Vietnam. My guys “covered” the 2nd Brigade. One of my combat correspondents leaked a photo to Pacific Stars and Stripes that he had taken. The photo was of a latrine festooned with the two-star flags that major generals displayed wherever they went.

The vehicles in which they rode had the flags attached next to the headlights to let everybody know that a big shot was on board — maybe in the hope that everyone would kneel and kiss the ground as the general passed by.

The latrine had general officer flags on all four corners of the roof, flags lining the path to the privy door and flags on both sides of the “hole.”

It was an absolutely idiotic display. Stars and Stripes ran the photo. The outraged general began a witch hunt but all the info officers pleaded total ignorance. I suspected that one of my guys was responsible for the leaked photo.  I never said a word to any of them but let it be quietly known that I was happy to see the photo.

Westmoreland had a conniption fit of fury. Within a few hours, ALL the 4th Infantry leader’s ego displays were removed. Maybe you could share this with the current Stars and Stripes’ staffers, to thank them for carrying on the tradition of holding the egomaniacs accountable.”

 

Holding the egomaniacs accountable. That might not be Stripes’ official mission, the one we write on plaques and certificates. But, I’m certain every friend of Stars and Stripes would nod in approval. Holding the ego maniacs accountable.

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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