The Media Today

Did Stars and Stripes win the fallout from Trump’s ‘losers’ comments?

September 8, 2020

For more than six months now, the future of Stars and Stripes—a military newspaper that is owned by, yet editorially independent from, the US government—has been up in the air. In February, its leadership learned, initially via a story in the Wall Street Journal, that the Pentagon was planning, as part of Trump’s budget proposal to Congress, to cut the paper’s subsidy—money that Stars and Stripes uses to report from, and distribute papers to, US bases from the Persian Gulf to the horn of Africa, including in countries where troops can’t safely use cellphones to read the news. Confirming the proposed subsidy cut, Pentagon officials cited cost considerations and their judgment that, in “the modern age,” they no longer need a newspaper in order to “communicate.” Their reasoning was widely criticized. The subsidy represents a tiny slice of the Pentagon’s budget. And, as Ernie Gates, the Stars and Stripes ombudsman, told me at the time, it’s not the paper’s job to “communicate” government talking points. Stars and Stripes, he said, is “part of a free press—free of censorship, free of command interference.”

Since then, the fate of Stars and Stripes has been caught up in Congressional budget wrangling: in June, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee backed the proposed cut in its version of a defense bill; the panel’s Democratic-led counterpart in the House then moved to reverse the decision, and retain the subsidy at its current level. On Friday, we learned of a potentially-decisive twist: USA Today reported the existence of a memo, issued in early August by a Pentagon official, ordering Stars and Stripes to cease publication by the end of September, before shuttering completely early next year. A few hours later, though, the story changed again when Trump himself got involved, insisting, via Twitter, that Stars and Stripes won’t be dissolved after all, and will instead “continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!”

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This was suspicious. It was Trump’s own budget that first proposed cutting the paper’s subsidy. And the president doesn’t typically credit independent-minded news organizations as “wonderful sources of information.” In recent months, in fact, he’s taken action to tighten his administration’s grip on taxpayer-funded outlets—Voice of America, most notably—that he has long perceived as insufficiently boosterish of his politics.

As many news organizations suggested, the timing of Trump’s Stars and Stripes reprieve smacked not of a newfound appreciation for good journalism, but of an ulterior motive—coming, as it did, in the midst of a burgeoning scandal about Trump’s contempt for the military. Last Thursday, The Atlantic published a story in which Jeffrey Goldberg, its editor in chief, alleged, per four unnamed sources with firsthand knowledge of the incident, that in 2018, Trump refused to visit a cemetery for Americans who died in World War I. The cemetery, Trump said, was “filled with losers,” plus it was raining, and Trump didn’t want to get his hair wet. The White House strongly denied Goldberg’s reporting, but other outlets, including Fox News, soon confirmed it. In that context, the Stars and Stripes tweet looked like a convenient way for Trump to signal his confidence in rank-and-file personnel, if not their bosses—an impression bolstered yesterday when, at a press conference, he claimed that soldiers love him, even though the upper echelons of the Pentagon may not. “They want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs, who make the planes, and make everything else stay happy,” Trump said, of the top brass.

Yesterday, I asked Gates, the Stars and Stripes ombudsman, whether he credited Goldberg’s story with Trump’s about-face on his paper’s future. He agreed that the fallout from The Atlantic’s article—as well as a recent Military Times poll showing that a plurality of active-duty troops currently intend to vote for Joe Biden—likely had some sort of impact. “In that atmosphere, I don’t doubt that someone at the Pentagon and/or the White House saw tweeting to ‘save’ Stars and Stripes as an opportunity to say, ‘I support the troops,’” Gates said. He added, however, that he doesn’t think Trump personally proposed the cut to the paper’s subsidy that appeared in his budget, and may not even have known about it. Rather, Gates reckons, “three-plus years of the message that ‘the press is the enemy of the people’ emboldened some in the Pentagon who regard Stars and Stripes’s independent reporting as an annoyance.”

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No matter how he got there, Trump’s apparent decision to save Stars and Stripes is welcome. The president’s motivations, however, do matter—in the present, febrile climate, in particular, his efforts to curry favor with the troops could be of much greater significance than a garden-variety play for votes. In recent months, Trump and his allies have repeatedly threatened to deploy active-duty military to counter protests in US cities; in June, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stood, in uniform, at Trump’s side as police tear-gassed peaceful protesters so that the president could do a photo op. (Milley subsequently said that his presence was “a mistake.”) Recently, a group of academics, civil servants, and politicians war-gamed how Trump might respond if he doesn’t like the election result in November; several scenarios involved him deploying troops to “restore order” domestically. “The exercises underscored the tremendous power enjoyed by an incumbent president,” Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and cofounder of the war-gaming initiative, wrote last week in the Washington Post. “Biden can call a news conference, but Trump can call in the 82nd Airborne.”

Brooks and her colleagues weren’t making a prediction, per se. But in these extraordinary times, it doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to see such a scenario coming to pass. If it does, it’ll be better if Stars and Stripes is around to cover it—with its military access and expertise, and without fear of favor—than if it isn’t.

For now, its future still isn’t secure: Trump’s tweet was important, but it was, ultimately, just a tweet. Gates told me yesterday that Pentagon officials should immediately rescind their prior order to shutter Stars and Stripes, then guarantee its continued funding beyond the end of the month. In the longer term, the paper’s future will be up to Congress, where Gates believes that Stars and Stripes enjoys strong support. “I was already optimistic that we would win,” he said. “But the unexpected tweet was welcome because it explicitly changes the administration’s position and should help remove possible resistance among Republicans in the Senate.”

Below, more on the Trump administration, the military, and the press:

  • Harold Ross’s Stars and Stripes: In the Wall Street Journal, Seth Lipsky, who worked for Stars and Stripes in Vietnam in the early seventies and is now the editor of the New York Sun, makes the case for the former paper’s continued existence. During World War I, “the sergeant who was its managing editor got arrested in an argument over a comma—or, one version has it, for getting scooped by the Paris Herald,” Lipsky writes. The sergeant was Harold Ross, who subsequently founded the New Yorker.
  • Taking the First?: In February, after the Stars and Stripes subsidy cut was first proposed, I examined the First Amendment case for the paper’s survival based on the prior case of the Bay Journal, a government-funded environmental newspaper that successfully challenged the EPA’s efforts to cut its funding in 2018. “The First Amendment doesn’t require the government to subsidize expression,” Jonathan Peters, CJR’s press-freedom correspondent, told me, “but if the government does, it may not then discriminate based on the viewpoints of the organization whose speech it’s subsidizing.”
  • Reliable sources?: Since Goldberg published his article about Trump’s alleged “losers” comments, top military officials have not publicly confirmed their veracity. Goldberg’s colleague David Frum reckons that their silence attests to the story’s truth—but, as Jeffrey Collins and David Crary report, for the AP, some veterans and military families have dismissed the story and its reliance on anonymous sources. On Sunday, CNN’s Brian Stelter asked Goldberg about his sourcing. “These are not people who are anonymous to me,” Goldberg said. “We all have to use anonymous sources, especially in a climate where the president of the United States tries to actively intimidate.”
  • Hawk of the town: Yesterday, numerous reporters and pundits pushed back on Trump’s claim that military leaders don’t like him because he’s impeded their warmongering instincts. “Trump increased the Pentagon budget, authorized record arms exports, and escalated the drone wars,” The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein pointed out. “When Trump claims to be anti-war, media should maybe mention that bit of context?” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, meanwhile, noted that the US is still in Afghanistan, and that Trump authorized the assassination, in January, of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top general.
  • Ratted out: On Friday, the office of John Ratcliffe, Trump’s director of national intelligence, excluded the Times from a press briefing about a declassified court ruling on FBI surveillance practices. According to Charlie Savage, a Times reporter, Ratcliffe blacklisted the Times after its magazine published a story, last month, investigating the White House’s efforts to downplay intelligence about Russian meddling in the election.

Other notable stories: 

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.