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Ombudsman On The Pentagon's Order To Shut Down 'Stars and Stripes'

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

This could be the final month for Stars and Stripes. The news source about the military for the military may cease to exist after publishing continuously since World War II. The Pentagon made the announcement today despite rare bipartisan agreement that the publication is important to thousands of enlisted Americans and their families. But then President Trump tweeted that Stars and Stripes won't shut down on his watch. That tweet landed amid backlash from an Atlantic article that reports that Trump called war dead suckers and losers. Earlier today we spoke with Ernie Gates, the ombudsman for Stars and Stripes. I asked him why the Pentagon would try to shut down the publication.

ERNIE GATES: The truth is an independent source of news can get under people's skin. So I think what we're looking at, really, is three years of hearing the message that the free press is the enemy of the people, I think, has emboldened people at the Pentagon who do find Stars and Stripes to be an annoyance to say, this is our chance to get rid of it.

PFEIFFER: What about it has been an annoyance? What kind of things have you covered that might ruffle feathers within the military?

GATES: You know, I think the essential element of Stars and Stripes is that it is independent of the command message. And so what's different is that you're getting an independent view of what's going on on the base, in the world. And that kind of reporting sometimes is crosswise with the command message the same way sometimes independent reporting about a business is crosswise with the public relations office.

PFEIFFER: You're making the important point that Stars and Stripes has editorial independence from the Pentagon. But does it actually do hard-hitting or critical reporting of the military? - because I'm wondering if a argument could also be made that it's mostly a softball internal newsletter, and therefore, it's reasonable to trim it out of the budget.

GATES: You know, I think anybody that would look at Stars and Stripes would regard it as a pretty first-class American-style news organization. Most importantly, Stars and Stripes has reporters on bases all over the world where no other news organization honestly has a very good reason to be.

PFEIFFER: On that note, there was a letter from a bipartisan group of senators who oppose the shutdown of Stars and Stripes, and they note that it has done unique reporting on niche military issues like the defense department's school system. What kinds of issues would go uncovered if Stars and Stripes doesn't exist anymore?

GATES: One example that comes to mind immediately is when the pandemic really started to rage, the DOD schools in Japan were slow to decide what they were going to do. Stars and Stripes reported that from the point of view of the parents, raised those issues on behalf of the readers the way a good newspaper would. And pretty quickly after that, they got an answer. That was a pretty good example of getting to the heart of a question that was essential at that moment to those readers, and nobody else was going to ask that question.

PFEIFFER: What's the chance, do you think, that Stars and Stripes will actually survive this?

GATES: I think Congress, both in the House and in the Senate, is very supportive of Stars and Stripes. And the House has voted by large bipartisan votes to include Stars and Stripes in the FY21 budget. So I think the Pentagon would be defying Congress if it actually closed Stars and Stripes on Oct. 1, which is why I'm hopeful that Secretary Esper will rescind the order to close down and commit to funding Stars and Stripes, including through a period of a continuing resolution, which is what we're likely to see after Oct. 1.

PFEIFFER: That's Ernie Gates, ombudsman for Stars and Stripes.

Ernie, thank you for coming on the program.

GATES: You bet, Sacha. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATIONAL SONG, "EMPIRE LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.