USA Today reports that in a recent, previously unpublicized memo, the Pentagon’s acting director of Defense Media Activity, Col. Paul Haverstick (Army), ordered the publisher of Stars and Stripes to present a plan to discontinue its print publication by September 15.
“The last newspaper publication (in all forms) will be September 30, 2020,” Haverstick wrote, per USA Today opinion contributor Kathy Kiely.
Stars and Stripes reported in February that the Pentagon had proposed cutting around $7 million of its funding in February, or roughly 35% of its annual expenses. The Wall Street Journal was first to report the proposal.
“We have essentially decided coming into the modern age that newspaper is probably not the best way we communicate any longer,” Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, reportedly said at the time.
The Stripes’ ombudsman, Ernie Gates, fired back at the comment on Twitter, saying the century-old paper is not a soapbox for the Pentagon. “Stars and Stripes’ mission is not to communicate the DoD or command message, but to be an independent, First Amendment publication that serves the troops—especially deployed troops.”
The Defense Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. Stripes publisher Max D. Lederer, Jr. could not be immediately reached.
“In a world where news publishers are already struggling to stay afloat amid a global pandemic and Big Tech’s stranglehold over ad revenue, it would be irresponsible for the government to close Stars and Stripes,” Laura Bassett, cofounder of the Save the Journalism Project, said in a statement.
“It’s even more outrageous to claim to shut it down to reduce spending when the Trump administration frequently brags about billions of funding increases for the military,” Bassett continued. “The cost to operate the Stars and Stripes is pocket change in the context of the DOD budget.”
“I read Stars and Stripes on a mountain in Afghanistan when I was a 19 year old aspiring journalist. Now I work there,” tweeted Steve Beynon, who reports on the Department of Veterans Affairs. “This doesn’t stop the journalism. I’m juggling 3 future news stories today.”
The first iteration of Stars and Stripes was printed from 1861 to 1865 by Union Army soldiers from Illinois who, as the story goes, came across an abandoned printing press in the town of Bloomfield, Missouri. The paper was relaunched in 1918 as a weekly for American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War.
Many significant writers, illustrators, and photographers of the 20th Century launched their careers at Stars and Stripes, including famed American cartoonist Bill Mauldin, whose wartime work nabbed him his first Pulitzer Prize (and the ire of General George Patton).
Stars and Stripes, which also publishes online, continues to draw in revenue from “sales, subscriptions, and advertising,” but depends on its Pentagon subsidiary “to cover the expensive and sometimes dangerous task of overseas reporting and distribution.”
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators urged Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a letter to continue supporting the paper.
“It was Stars and Stripes that revealed the Defense Department’s use of public relations firms that profiled reporters and streered them toward favorable coverage of the war in Afghanistan,” wrote the 11 Democrats and four Republicans. “Most recently, the paper brought to light the failure of schools on U.S. military installations to shut down during the pandemic, despite Japanese public schools doing so.”
“These stories illustrate why Stars and Stripes is essential: they report on stories that no one else covers,” they added.
News of the paper’s shuttering comes at a precarious time for the Trump administration. A report in the Atlantic on Thursday has raised new questions about President Trump’s personal regard for military service.
The report states that while refusing to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris during a 2018 trip, Trump told senior staff members, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” (Stars and Stripes has since itself reported on the controversy.)
The cemetery contains the graves of over 2,200 war dead, in addition to a monument commemorating the 1,800 U.S. Marines who died capturing the surrounding area in 1918.
The Associated Press later confirmed elements of the Atlantic’s story, citing the word of a senior Defense Department official with firsthand knowledge of events and that of a senior U.S. Marine Corps officer who was told about Trump’s comments at the time.
The White House strongly denied the report. “I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes,” Trump said Thursday night. “There is nobody that respects them more.”
The Atlantic, whose multiple sources are unnamed but are said to have “firsthand knowledge” of the president’s remarks, further reported that following the death of his rival Sen. John McCain—who was a prisoner of war for five years during the Vietnam War—Trump told senior staff he was “not going to support that loser’s funeral.”
Trump tweeted late Thursday night that he “never called John a loser,” though video evidence to the contrary exists. When asked about McCain during a campaign event in 2015, Trump responded saying, “I like people who weren’t captured,” followed by, “He lost and let us down,” and “I don’t like losers.”
Update, 4pm: Following reports, President Trump decided to address the matter of Stars and Stripes being defunded on Twitter, declaring it would not happen “under my watch.”