BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last summer, several months into a violence-plagued occupation that many soldiers in Iraq had not expected, the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, conducted a survey of troop morale. Half of the nearly two thousand soldiers surveyed said morale in their units was low, and they did not plan to re-enlist. Forty percent described their training as insufficient, and almost as many said their missions were not clearly defined. The findings were printed in a multi-part series titled Ground Truth and seemed to be a harsh critique of war planners, especially considering the source, a Pentagon-funded daily hardly known for its muckraking. But an article in this month's Washington Monthly suggests it might have been even harsher. The magazine's Robert Schlesinger spoke to Stars and Stripes staffers on the condition of anonymity. They told him that stories that ran in the paper were sanitized versions of the stories they'd actually written.
ROBERT SCHLESINGER: The headline of the lead story was: What Is the Morale of U.S. Troops in Iraq? Answers Vary. And in fact, all the reporters involved in the story signed a letter complaining that the stories had been watered down; that they had been, in many cases, just killed entirely. And the reporters, some even wanted to have their names taken off their stories.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there evidence that this rather severe denaturing of the series was the result of pressure from the Pentagon or, or elsewhere?
ROBERT SCHLESINGER: The evidence isn't so much that it was someone from the Pentagon's saying ahead of time -you've got to quash this series - you've got to make it look good. More along the lines of editors worrying that if it ran as the reporters reported it out and wrote it that it would bring a severe reaction from the Pentagon, and so they were sort of pre-emptively trying to water it down so that there wouldn't be this reaction.
BOB GARFIELD: I gather this is not the first time this issue of editorial independence has come up. Congress has been involved at various points, no?
ROBERT SCHLESINGER: Yes. There's a long, interesting history with Stars and Stripes in terms of the struggle between editorial independence and Pentagon control. It goes back to at least World War II when Patton actually tried to ban some Stars and Stripes reporters from his, you know, theater of operations. But Eisenhower stepped in and said no, Stars and Stripes has to be editorially independent, because it's important for the morale of the troops to get straight news. And in, in the mid-to-late 1980s the Congress had the General Accounting Office, its investigative arm investigate complaints about censorship in the paper, and the GAO found that there was a great deal of censorship, and one great example was that in a story that Stars and Stripes ran that originally had quotes from Senator William Proxmire saying that there were issues of censorship with the paper, one of the editors took out the Proxmire quotes that talked about there being censorship and, instead, put in quotes from himself, from that editor, saying there was no censorship. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's delicious in its crystalline perfection, is it not?
ROBERT SCHLESINGER: I mean it's really quite brilliant. Congress at that point decided to restructure the paper. Initially the editors, who up until then had been military officers, they were made civilian positions. And then in the mid-1990s the publisher was made a civilian as well.
BOB GARFIELD: But at the same time as Congress was trying to mandate editorial independence, they were undermining that effort by making Stars and Stripes more dependent on the Pentagon for financing. How did that play out?
ROBERT SCHLESINGER: The paper was able to sustain itself by - they ran a series of bookstores in U.S. military bases abroad. They needed the bookstores to keep them in the black, as it were. In the early '90s, the Congress started getting complaints that the bookstores were run inefficiently, and, and they gave control of the bookstores to the Army & Air Force Exchange Services. So in order to make up for the money that the paper was losing, they said that the Pentagon had to pay for roughly a third of its budget, which at this point is about 12 million dollars.
BOB GARFIELD: Well there's this weird opposing mirrors aspect of all of this -- the Pentagon funding a newspaper which does reporting which finds morale low among U.S. troops, which bounces back to the Pentagon, which dismisses it as inaccurate reporting. It sounds to me like there can never be a resolution if the sponsor of journalism is also the subject of the journalism and doesn't like the journalism being done.
ROBERT SCHLESINGER: It is an inherently contradictory situation that eventually you, you do see repeated instances where the sponsor tries to change the tone, and another way of doing it, if not the kind of heavy-handed - don't run this story - which they have done - is the subtler, you know, we're very concerned about the cost of running this and we're not going to help you out as much as we could. You kind of hollow out Stars and Stripes until it becomes something less than a robust, aggressive, independent newspaper.
BOB GARFIELD: Given all the overlapping conflicts of interest, and given the proliferation of other media that do distribute all around the world, including where U.S. forces are deployed --USA Today, International Herald Tribune, all kinds of satellite TV channels and so forth --is it possible that Stars and Stripes has simply outlived its usefulness and that the material contained therein is available elsewhere anyway?
ROBERT SCHLESINGER: I don't think so, because a lot of the stuff contained therein isn't available elsewhere anyway. I mean this, this is a newspaper in many ways like a typical small town newspaper -just that the town, instead of being Peoria, Illinois is the U.S. military. It's a town not in the physical, geographical sense but in the kind of communal sense, and Stars and Stripes fits a niche that the International Herald Tribune, USA Today don't and can't fit. And that's why I think they're still important.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Robert, thank you so much.
ROBERT SCHLESINGER: Well, thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Reporter Robert Schlesinger's article Stars and Stripes appears in the current issue of Washington Monthly.