Marines leaf through a copy of Marine Corps Times during some downtime at a patrol base in Afghanistan's Helmand province. The newspaper, which throughout the last year has investigated allegations of wrongdoing involving the service's top general, has been targeted by Marine Corps headquarters as part of a new initiative to 'professionalize' areas where the publication is sold. (Brennan Linsley / The Associated Press)
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A news rack where Marine Corps Times had been displayed in the top position. (Marine Corps Times photo)
Marine Corps leaders have ordered the independent Marine Corps Times newspaper removed from its prominent newsstand location at base exchange stores worldwide and placed instead in areas away from checkout lines, where it is harder to find and fewer copies are available.
The move raises troubling questions about motive and closely follows a directive prohibiting commanders from using budget funds to buy Marine Corps Times and a number of other publications.
Marine Corps Times is widely recognized for its comprehensive coverage of the Corps, focusing on everything from career tracks, to pay and benefits, family and spouse issues, and employment after leaving the military.
Throughout much of the past year, the paper has published dozens of articles as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations the service’s commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, abused his authority to ensure Marines were punished for an embarrassing war-zone scandal. Numerous reports have captured the attention of mainstream media outlets, including NPR, CNN and Time magazine, among several others.
Spokesmen for the commandant’s office would not answer questions about whether Amos or his staff were aware of or involved in the decision to relocate the newspaper, but a source with knowledge of the new directive said it was approved with the commandant’s knowledge.
“It is no secret [in the Pentagon] that the commandant does not like Marine Corps Times,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The commandant’s office punted all questions, including whether Amos was involved in the decision to move Marine Corps Times from prominent display in the exchanges,to Manpower & Reserve Affairs, which has oversight of the exchange. A spokeswoman for Manpower & Reserve Affairs said the paper was moved as part of a plan to “professionalize” the front of the exchanges.
Fiscal guidance for 2014, issued Oct. 22, specifically prohibits commands from using operations and maintenance funds for purchasing subscriptions to Marine Corps Times, which is part of the Military Times network and owned by Gannett, one of the world’s largest media corporations.
The order to move the paper from checkout areas came six weeks later. Distributors were given a variety of reasons. One was told it was due to business performance, though the paper is one of, if not the top-selling publications in Marine Corps exchanges.
Officials at Marine Corps Community Services and the Semper Fit and Exchange Services Division did not respond to multiple requests for sales data. However, information provided by Army and Air Force Exchange Services shows that Army Times and Air Force Times — Marine Corps Times’ sister publications — outsell the next publication 10-to-1.
“For any retailer to hide one of its best-selling products is just bad business. It obviously will hurt our newsstand sales, but it also hurts revenues to the Exchange,” said Peter Lundquist, Military Times’ vice president and general manager. “But I’m told this isn’t about business. Marine Corps Times helps Marines and their families stay informed about their service and their livelihood. We believe our independence is an asset to Marines. By what standard is Marine Corps Times not professionally oriented reading material, and who is setting that standard for Marines?”
Cindy Whitman Lacy, chief operating officer and deputy director of business operations for the Marine Corps’ Semper Fit and Exchange Services Division, offered another explanation to the head of circulation for Military Times. Marine Corps Times, she said, is not consistent with the Marine Corps “brand.”
While a provided statement said Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, deputy commandant for Manpower & Reserve Affairs, “directed” the change, it does not say who made the decision.
Milstead “directed the Semper Fit and Exchange Services Division to determine how to professionalize the front areas of our stores,” Maj. Shawn Haney, spokeswoman for Manpower & Reserve Affairs, said in the statement. “As a result, the store entry merchandising strategy was reviewed and new directives were issued on how and where publications are to be displayed.”
Marine officials did not respond when asked if this meant Marine Corps Times is viewed as unprofessional.
The only step taken to “professionalize” the front area is to force all paid newspapers to the back of the store. Officials did not say how many, if any other newspapers were affected by the change. Most local and national newspapers are sold out of coin-operated vending machines. Other publications such as magazines will not be moved, officials said, due to contractual agreements already in place.
The wire racks and bins “are only authorized to display Marine Corps Exchange promotional materials,” according to the new policy. Exchange managers were told to move the newspapers to make room for the commandant’s reading list and that of the “First Lady of the Marine Corps,” Amos’ wife Bonnie.
Those racks remained empty as of Feb. 6, nearly two months after the order to remove the newspapers was issued.