EXCLUSIVE: Stars And Stripes, the newspaper of the U.S. Armed Forces, has a long history of biting the hands that feed it, whether inside the military establishment or, as in the case of Brian Williams, outside. The paper, with roots in the Civil War, came of age during the WWI and has often gone up against the powers-that-be — especially when its sometimes combustible mix of civilian and Defense Department journalists perceives a threat to its independence.
“Stripes is staffed by Department of Defense employees, but the top editors are civilians and a lot, if not most, reporters are civilians,” Los Angeles Times writer and onetime Stars And Stripes correspondent Monte Morin told Deadline. “This goes back to the 60s and 70s, when it was exclusively DOD staffed, until Congress said it had to be run by civilians. Stars And Stripes has some very big fans in Congress. It has a tenuous relationship with the military. Enlisted men like it but higher-ups, officers, are frustrated because they can’t act out on it.” Translation: Stars And Stripes has a history of having the backs of soldiers in the trenches along with a classic journalistic skepticism about anyone seen as too big for his or her britches.
In 2010, for example, a team of Stars And Stripes j0urnalists — Charlie Reed, Kevin Baron and Leo Shane III — won the George Polk Award for military reporting for “Shaping the Message,” a story that revealed the Pentagon’s secret use of the Rendon Group, a controversial Washington-based public relations firm, to provide secret profiles of journalists reporting from Afghanistan. The goal was to generate “positive” coverage of the war — and deny credentials to those unlikely to get on board that bandwagon. Among journalists, the Polk Award confers nearly the same mark of excellence as a Pulitzer Prize. A week after the article appeared in 2009, the Pentagon canceled the initiative.
“Some investigation is inherent to journalism of any sort. But I think here it was much more on the reporting side of the line than the investigation side of the line. It exposed false statements by a member of the press.”
For Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law and one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars, red flags are raised when Stars and Stripes ventures into becoming a watchdog over the accuracy of mainstream media reporting. “Stars and Stripes is part of the government,” he told Deadline. “The danger is that government investigations can have a chilling effect on speech. It is unusual here because it would be a newspaper, owned and run by the government, doing the investigation. I do not think here it was functioning as an ‘investigative body.’ Some investigation is inherent to journalism of any sort. But I think here it was much more on the reporting side of the line than the investigation side of the line. It exposed false statements by a member of the press.”
Stars And Stripes is authorized by Congress and the U.S. Defense Department to publish print versions distributed at U.S. military installations in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. It doesn’t publish a print version in the United States, but its website can be read anywhere. And unlike other military publications, it’s been afforded protections under the First Amendment. So in 2009, when Army officials barred a Stars and Stripes reporter from embedding with a unit of the 1stCavalry Division that was attempting to secure the Iraqi city of Mosul, the paper immediately lodged a protest. A subsequent story noted that the reporter was barred because he had “‘refused to highlight’ good news in Iraq that U.S. military wanted to emphasize.”
Perhaps no Stars And Stripes staffer exemplified this better than cartoonist Bill Mauldin, whose WWII drawings of “dogfaces” Willie and Joe, depicted the real lives of soldiers with a world-weary honesty that often caught the eyes of military censors. Mauldin, who died in 2003, still managed to win a pair of Pulitzer Prizes for his work and is revered to this day.
Morin knows all this from the inside: He had already been covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Times when, in 2005, he took the unusual step of leaving a major newspaper and going to work for Stars And Stripes. He wanted, he says, to get deeper inside the war, and found the access accorded mainstream reporters too limiting.
“I wanted to be in the action,” he said. “With the L.A. Times, it was very difficult to move around. With Stars And Stripes, you’re always embedded.”
The list of journalists who got their start at Stars And Stripes is formidable, going back to Harold Ross, who, after his stint during the first World War, went on to found and edit The New Yorker; Henry Grantland Rice, a name familiar to any fan of ESPN; and drama critic Alexander Woollcott from the New York Times, who was Stars And Stripes‘ chief war correspondent in 1918.
The late 60 Minutes pundit Andy Rooney reported for Stars And Stripes from London during World War II; two reporters, one from the N.Y. Times the other from Stars And Stripes, were the first journalists to enter the Dachau concentration camp on liberation in April, 1945, reporting first hand on the horrors they witnessed. New York Times Vietnam War correspondent and later editorial columnist and media critic Sydney Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work, cut his teeth as a Stars And Stripes staffer.
“The Pentagon-backed newspaper has suffered from the same economic changes that have plagued the rest of the media industry in recent years, challenges that have been compounded by a diffuse print readership spanning the globe,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported last week. “Subsidies from the Department of Defense, meanwhile, have withered alongside cuts to overall military spending. Those factors have left Stars and Stripes clamoring for new ways to reach US military units. And it must do so while maintaining autonomy from the government agency that supported it to the tune of $7.8 million in 2014.”
The paper’s public stand has been not to gloat over Brian Williams suspension in the wake of its expose of the NBC Nightly News anchor’s misrepresentation of facts surrounding his reporting from Iraq in 2003. But, pace Willie and Joe, there’s doubtless some satisfaction among the rank and file over the public dressing-down of a pretender, whatever his motives.
“It’s a real coup when a national story cites Stars And Stripes as a source,” said Monte Morin. “I know they’re pretty psyched about the Brian Williams story. I can’t remember any other story of this consequence.”