The Pen Is Mightier: At the Stars and Stripes, Johnny Gets His Pad And Barks, `Why, Sir?’ — Paper Digs Up Tough Stories Regarding the Pentagon, Which Has to Print Them — Fewer Readers, Bloated Staff

GAJEVI, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Arriving at the scene of a pitched gun battle between Muslim civilians and Serb police, Jeffrey Smith approaches an angry crowd of Muslims, his pen and pad at the ready. They tell Mr. Smith, a reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, that the police opened fire first. He trudges up the hill to this tiny village, where a Serb policeman tells him the exact opposite.

One day later, his dispatch in Stars and Stripes makes it clear that the hatreds fueling the strife in Bosnia haven’t gone away — and that, despite the Clinton Administration’s official position at the time to the contrary, American troops probably aren’t about to leave, either.

For most news organizations, challenging the official line is de rigueur. For the Defense Department’s official newspaper for overseas troops, independence has been harder to come by. After years of sometimes serving as little more than a Pentagon house organ, the Stars and Stripes now produces hard-hitting reports on the very military complex that publishes and subsidizes it. Military superiors feed need-to-know information to the rank-and-file, “but they don’t tell us everything. We get the real story from Stripes,” says Christopher Bonshock, a 20-year-old private from Shamokin, Pa., based in Bosnia.

The real story isn’t always favorable. In recent months, the paper crusaded to expose alleged financial irregularities at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, a U.S. military-sponsored school in Germany; the director resigned in October. Stars and Stripes also has served up unblinking coverage of sexual-harassment allegations in the Army and the Navy. Other articles reported on the use of military planes for personal trips by the top U.S. commander in Europe and shoplifting charges against the acting secretary of the Army.

Stars and Stripes is unique among the world’s military structures. It is an arm of an organization with a penchant for spin control and an understandable obsession with secrecy. In fact, top Pentagon officials use its free-wheeling letters column to gauge morale. But while the tabloid suffers from declining revenue and circulation (the price is generally 50 cents a copy), and from pressure to pare its ranks, it is considered so indispensable for the sense of community it instills in troops that nobody seriously talks about killing or privatizing it. The Stars and Stripes, it seems, is forever.

“The only thing that’s more popular is mail from home,” says Sgt. Richard McLaughlin, who delivers the paper at Eagle Base, the headquarters for American troops in Bosnia. Master Sgt. Linda Grable adds, “If we stopped getting Stripes, there’d be a riot.”

Stars and Stripes isn’t without detractors. An exhaustive recent study by an outside newspaper consultant calls it overstaffed and badly managed. Top brass offer it grudging respect. Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says it’s “controversial in military circles” but “a valued commodity.”

Even rank-and-file readers sometimes blame the messenger, as was the case with three stories about the Bosnia mission. One said that sexual relations among the troops resulted in a pregnancy every three days. Another revealed that one out of 100 checks cashed by soldiers were “made of rubber.” The third detailed a black enlisted man’s claim that he was assaulted by white soldiers; he later recanted.

“It sounded like, `Hey, we got gangs, sex and crime,’ as if we’re cruddy people. Soldiers felt betrayed,” says Army Reserve Maj. Debbie Poole, a children’s minister in Columbus, Ohio, who handles media relations at Eagle Base.

“It’s too focused on the military,” says staff Sgt. Mark Stevenson, one of many soldiers here who long for USA Today, which is available at other bases but doesn’t sell nearly as well as Stars and Stripes.

The reporters in Bosnia live and work out of an apartment on the 10th floor of a rundown building in downtown Tuzla, a Muslim stronghold about 10 miles from Eagle Base. The city was mostly unscathed during the war, but the building’s elevator usually doesn’t work, and there is running water only from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

On the day of last month’s shooting in Gajevi, the apartment’s resident-journalists include Mr. Smith, a 38-year-old civilian, who is ordinarily based at the newspaper’s European headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, and photographer Chuck Gohl, a 35-year-old Air Force technical sergeant. Hearing reports about the incident, they jump into the bureau’s beat-up Volkswagen Golf and head north on a narrow road, dodging horse-drawn wagons loaded with split wood.

“We must be on the right track,” says Mr. Gohl, spotting a pair of circling F-16 fighter jets. Further on, low-flying American helicopters come into view. Along the road, locals stand gawking at the action that has interrupted their daily routines.

Leaving the car at a checkpoint, Mr. Smith asks a U.S. Army officer to outline what happened: American troops arrived after hearing reports of early-morning gunfire between the Serbs who control the village and the Muslims who said they used to live here and felt they should be able to return under the peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, last year. The Americans began moving up the hill toward the village to restore calm at 1 p.m., just as more than 100 Muslims were fleeing a second gun battle. At least one Muslim was dead in the worst day of fighting since the Dayton agreement was signed.

Mr. Smith knows the other troops will hear the basics of what happened through normal “command” channels, so he begins collecting the sort of details that animate a colorful news story. He walks toward the village, up a dirt road winding through rocky terrain. To avoid land mines possibly planted off the roadside, he edges along a line of more than 40 wide-bodied Army Humvees that fill the road. He enters a crumbling stone house where some Muslims spent the previous night and jots down what’s left behind: a stew of carrots and onions, sacks of potatoes, blankets and bed mats, shoes, china, a toothbrush and a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans.

Andrija Bjelosevic, a stern-looking Serb police colonel with carefully coiffed silver-gray hair, stands nearby. He is surrounded by several other fatigue-clad policemen carrying rifles (forbidden under the Dayton accord). Mr. Bjelosevic addresses Mr. Smith with unwavering eye contact, though the two men speak through a translator. He says the Muslims started the fight by shooting at his men. “We tried to speak to them, but that was not successful,” he says.

Back in Tuzla, Mr. Smith sits by the refrigerator in the apartment’s kitchen and furiously taps out the story on a laptop computer. Mr. Gohl plugs his digital camera into another computer in the living room, selects several images and transmits them to Darmstadt through a satellite dish perched on the balcony.

Mr. Smith’s story tops the next day’s front page. Its implicit and obvious message — that American soldiers would remain in Bosnia past Christmas — is bemoaned but appreciated by readers at Eagle Base. “Window dressing isn’t enough,” says Larry Frady, a 24-year-old specialist guarding one of the camp’s fortified gates. “If we are really going to be prepared, we need to have the good and the bad.”

Soldiers here credit Stars and Stripes with shoring up morale during the lengthy deployment. The troops are cut off not only from their families and homes but also from the country they came to save, since they can’t leave the base unless they’re on a mission. So the newspaper tries to make them feel more connected. On Dec. 13, 1995, just before 20,000 or so American troops arrived here, the paper published a 32-page special edition that detailed Yugoslavia’s history and its disintegration, including stories on the decrepit roads and railways, the potential influence of Islamic extremists and the sorry state of the economy. Other articles have focused on the plight of families separated during the war because they included both Serbs and Muslims.

“It touches you right here,” says 19-year-old helicopter mechanic Jason Lacky, his right hand brushing his chest, after reading a story about Bosnian children being able to return to school.

Founded by Union troops during the American Civil War, Stars and Stripes has operated with varying degrees of independence. Its current autonomy stems from claims of censorship by the paper’s journalists in the mid-1980s. A military officer who served as both editor and publisher of the Tokyo-based Asian edition was accused of killing embarrassing stories. After an investigation by the General Accounting Office confirmed some of the allegations, the House Armed Services Committee pressured the Pentagon to enhance the paper’s independence.

Now, the paper’s Asia and Europe editions both have civilian editors. Publishers continue to be military officers but can’t influence editorial matters. To enforce the divide, Congress also had the paper hire an ombudsman who can write columns to scare off would-be meddlers or complain to top Defense Department officials and Congress. In 1992-94, the ombudsman was Bill Monroe, the long-time Meet the Press moderator and former editor of the American Journalism Review.

The system works. Staff continues to be a mix of civilians and military personnel. But when a colonel chewed out a reporter from the military for being “abrasive and impertinent” to higher-ups, Mr. Monroe says he threatened to write a column accusing the officer of “editorial interference,” and that ended that. When the American commander in Somalia decided not to distribute Stars and Stripes, Mr. Monroe wrote a column. The commander reversed his decision, a Pentagon official says.

“There’s no paper in anywhere that has an ombudsman who can tell a publisher, `I’m going to go over your head,'” Mr. Monroe says. “It has a free-press guarantee that no other American paper has.”

The European edition reaches soldiers from Iceland to Saudi Arabia, 27 countries in all. But it also functions like a community paper, publishing a mix of news and features on an array of military topics and a smattering of political, business and sports news. Stars and Stripes recently started an electronic edition for ships at sea and other far-flung outposts and is considering other electronic ventures to cut circulation costs.

The newspaper is only available overseas, and its readership has plummeted with recent force reductions. Circulation in Europe topped 120,000 before the Soviet empire fell, but now stands at just 55,000. The Asian edition has 26,000 readers, down from more than 35,000 in 1990. So it’s not surprising that the independent newspaper consultant, former Gannett Co. executive Joe Ungaro, recommends sharply cutting costs.

The cost to produce both editions was $44.4 million last year. Part of that was covered by circulation sales, advertisers (mostly automotive services, travel businesses and long-distance carriers), and Japan (as part of its military cost-sharing agreement with the U.S.). Taxpayers covered the deficit: $12.9 million.

Mr. Ungaro’s study urges that the two editions merge some of their operations and reduce the total staff to 386 from about 600. “These are clearly grossly overstaffed newspapers,” his report says. He is also sharply critical of the newspaper’s business operations, calling one $680,000 equipment purchase “a waste of money” and asserting that “the financial numbers . . . in Germany have been a nightmare.”

Nevertheless, the study commends the paper’s editorial mission and says its availability remains “a major quality-of-life issue” for soldiers and their families. The report’s conclusion: “There are no viable substitutes.”