House adds protections for Stars and Stripes funding to defense budget

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U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., listens to comments during a House Committee on Armed Services hearing on the National Defense Authorization Bill on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)
From Stripes.com
U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., listens to comments during a House Committee on Armed Services hearing on the National Defense Authorization Bill on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

House adds protections for Stars and Stripes funding to defense budget

by: Travis J. Tritten | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: April 28, 2016

WASHINGTON – The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday added a measure to its annual defense budget bill protecting Stars and Stripes funding amid a Pentagon review.

The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, and requires the defense secretary to justify any reductions in the newspaper’s funding to the House committee before making cuts.

The publisher of Stars and Stripes notified its global staff last week that senior DOD officials are weighing whether to continue providing about $12.75 million per year to the editorially independent publication, which comprises about 40 percent of its total budget. The Defense Department has declined to comment and said any considered cuts are “pre-decisional” and should not be publicly discussed.

“I served six tours in the Middle East and Afghanistan and know first-hand the challenges our troops face simply accessing news from back home,” McSally said in a statement provided to Stars and Stripes. “Congress appropriated funds for Stars and Stripes specifically for the purpose of helping bridge this information gap.”

McSally’s legislation was added to the National Defense Authorization Act. The massive defense policy bill was hammered out by the Armed Services Committee during a marathon debate session Wednesday.

The NDAA must still be passed by the House and the Senate is also in the process of crafting its version. Congress typically reconciles the two versions and passes a final NDAA before the end of the year.

The McSally NDAA amendment comes after the committee chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said he also expects the Pentagon to consult with lawmakers before reducing the newspaper’s funding.

“I think Stars and Stripes obviously is a unique institution, it plays a unique role,” Thornberry said. “DOD has not consulted or talked to me at all about this. I hope they do before they take any action.”

Stars and Stripes was created by Congress to provide objective, free-press news coverage to troops, especially those deployed overseas and to war zones. Most of Stars and Stripes’ funding comes from sales, subscriptions and advertising, but it depends on a DOD subsidy to cover the expensive and sometimes dangerous task of overseas reporting and distribution.

The Defense Department is examining the newspaper and its parent command the Defense Media Activity as part of a program called the Business Process and Systems Review, which was created to improve efficiency and “identify activities that might be improved or eliminated.” Officials have been ordered to make cost-saving recommendations to Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work.

“The BPSR conducted a review of DMA business practices. As a component of DMA, Stars and Stripes was a part of that review,” Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, wrote in an email response. “The results of the DMA review are pre-decisional, and it would be unprofessional to speculate on pre-decisional information.”

Stars and Stripes attempted to interview David Tillotson, the acting DOD deputy chief management officer who is overseeing the review, but was directed to public affairs officials who provided a written statement.

Ray Shepherd, director of the Defense Media Activity, said he had no information on possible cuts but denied the DMA is supporting any move to eliminate the newspaper’s funding.

“We have no plans to defund Stars and Stripes,” Shepherd said.

The Business, Process and Systems Review recommendations are not finalized and no decisions have been made, according to Shepherd.

Last week, Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer said the newspaper participated in the review during the past year and he believed until last month that the Pentagon had settled on a recommendation to continue funding Stars and Stripes as usual.

But that changed in recent weeks and Pentagon officials apparently decided to put the defense funding back on the chopping block, Lederer said.

“Recently I was informed that there was still discussion at the senior OSD levels of whether or not the department would continue to provide Stripes with appropriated funds,” he wrote in the email to staff.

The loss of 50 percent of its funding would gut the newspaper’s finances and could cause it to shutter operations, Lederer said during a staff meeting that coincided with the email.

DOD officials are expected to meet with Stars and Stripes in the coming weeks to discuss the potential funding cuts, he said.

The Pentagon had considered cutting the newspaper’s funding in 2013 amid federal budget caps but the proposal was eventually abandoned after it ran into criticism from Congress and the public.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten