National Press Club

Stars & Stripes publisher cites enhanced independence from Pentagon

June 24, 2019 | By Ken Dalecki |

Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer speaks to American Legion Post 20 at the National Press Club on June 20.

Stars and Stripes publisher Max Lederer speaks to American Legion Post 20 at the National Press Club on June 20.

Photo/Image: Rex Stucky

The publisher of Stars & Stripes, which has covered the U.S. military from the soldier's perspective since the Civil War, told a meeting of American Legion Post 20 Thursday, June 20, that editorial independence from Pentagon interference has grown more robust.

Publisher Max Lederer noted that no other country has an editorially independent news source as part of its military. That was strengthened in 1990 when Congress mandated civilian leadership and an ombudsman to oversee free and independent reporting. It also required consultation with Congress before proposing budget cuts, and blocked a Pentagon effort to move its headquarters to a military facility.

While no other military would tolerate criticism of military brass in its own publication, Lederer said, "we do that all the time." As an example, he cited Stars & Stripes' stories about poorly armored vehicles during the Gulf War. They led to life-saving upgrades.

Although many of the paper's 450 staffers are involved in cutting-edge electronic journalism, Lederer said many readers still rely on its printed version, especially in combat areas. He explained that delivery to troops during operations in the Middle East included having drivers equipped with multiple tribal headwear to get through checkpoints. Deliveries are made to remote sites, such as the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and newly-deployed troops in Poland and Romania.

Troop confidence in his organization's willingness to take on tough topics was illustrated by controversy over claims by former NBC anchorman Brian Williams that he was in a helicopter hit by enemy fire during a 2003 mission in Iraq. Lederer said "we started getting e-mails from those who were there" who said Williams had lied. "They came to us" rather than than other media outlets, Lederer said. Williams, who agreed to a tough Stars & Stripes interview, said he was wrong because he was "scared" and an "untrained civilian." The "under fire" and other misstatements led to a six-month suspension and reassignment by NBC.

Lederer said the publication's annual budget "ebbs and flow" around $28 million and that 65% of its cost is supported by ads and other non-government sources. It maintains 36 news bureaus staffed by about 100 mostly civilian news gatherers, often younger reporters starting their careers. It has 12 printing partners around the world and civilian employees include nearly 150 Japanese staffers, 50 of whom have been with Stars & Strips for more than 40 years.

A 26-year veteran of Stars & Stripes, Lederer served with the Army's judge advocates office during the Gulf War and joined the publication as an attorney. He become chief operating officer in 2004 and publisher in 2007. Lederer, who is also a Legionnaire, said that under a new agreement Legion members may subscribe to Stars & Stripes digital publications for $19.99 a year, half the normal price.

Following Lederer's presentation, Post 20 held its annual election of officers, including the re-election of James Noone to his third year as Post Commander. The speaker portions of Post meetings are open to all National Press Club members.