Cuts to AFN, closing Stars and Stripes on Pentagon budget table
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, under intense pressure to maintain American military might in an era of sequestration and falling budgets, is considering the elimination of Stars and Stripes and the Pentagon Channel as well as programming cuts to American Forces Network.
The Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, which answers to the secretary of Defense, has been tasked with reviewing spending on all such media products.
The Pentagon typically refuses comment on budget studies while in process, and when asked for information on the scope and intent of the review, officials would only say all of DOD is currently the subject of a top-to-bottom spending review ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“In this budget environment, we’re looking at everything,” said Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, spokesman for the cost assessment office.
Bryan Whitman, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, referred queries on the matter back to Stars and Stripes managers and Defense Media Activity.
Ray B. Shepherd, the head of the Defense Media Activity, which oversees all three outlets, refused to elaborate on the study.
“We’ve been asked to look at everything,” Shepherd said.
Although the parameters of the review are unclear, Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer said budget officials have been making unprecedented requests for information.
He said he’d been tasked with providing budget numbers and scenarios for cuts — sometimes given just hours to do so — without being told why the review was underway.
“When you get asked questions in a vacuum, you get concerned,” Lederer said.
According to Shepherd, the 2013 budget for American Forces Radio and Television Service was $51.6 million, and costs for the Pentagon Channel about $6.1 million.
Stars and Stripes’ DOD subsidy for 2014 was $7.4 million, according to its chief financial officer, Bill Murphy. The majority of the paper’s budget comes from advertising, newspaper sales and other staff-generated revenue.
While the American Forces Network and The Pentagon Channel are command-directed information outlets, Stars and Stripes is editorially independent under federal law. The newspaper, which distributes its daily print paper in the Middle East, Asia and Europe and maintains a growing online presence, is staffed almost exclusively by civilians, and has a civilian ombudsman who answers to Congress.
Asked Wednesday, senators with the Armed Services Committee, who must consider deep cuts in end strength for the services, cuts to weapons programs and trimming of military benefits, said they had not been apprised of any such review.
“I had just heard rumors,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “But I think it would be a terrible mistake, I really do. The men and women who are serving get a lot of their information this way. It’s a great conduit to spread information to the men and women who are serving all over the world.
“Armed Forces Network, among many other things, does sports, which all of our men and women love,” McCain said. “So I think it would be crazy.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., agreed.
“I don’t like the idea. I certainly acknowledge [the Pentagon has] some really difficult choices ahead, and I’d want to look at it, but I think an independent editorial voice like Stars and Stripes provides is pretty darn important for transparency and accountability and oversight in the military.”