Reporter's Question Prompts Pentagon Review  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2009

Reporter's Question Prompts Pentagon Review   

White House correspondent reminds President Obama of his campaign pledge of transparency, sparking a review of the media coverage ban at Dover Air Force Base. Online Exclusive posted 2/17/09 1:00 p.m.

By Jamie McIntyre
     


Questions about the financial crisis dominated President Barack Obama's first prime time news conference until CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry decided it was time to change the subject.

"There's a Pentagon policy that bans media coverage of the flag-draped coffins from coming in to Dover Air Force Base," Henry said at the February 9 news conference. "You've promised unprecedented transparency, openness in your government. Will you overturn that policy so the American people can see the full human cost of war?"

The president responded with a classic dodge: "We are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense, so I don't want to give you an answer now before I've evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved."

While President Obama artfully avoided making a promise he might not want to keep, Henry had skillfully fulfilled one of journalism's basic functions: holding elected officials accountable for their own words.

It's unclear whether the policy was truly under review before Henry's query put the president on the spot, but by the next day it plainly was. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at a regularly scheduled Pentagon briefing that he considered a change in the policy a year ago, but was ordering another review "in response to the president's interest," and had "put a fairly short deadline on that effort."

A Pentagon official says the review of the policy, and a recommendation for any changes, should be on Defense Secretary Gates' desk in a few weeks. If the ban is not lifted, Congress could act to remove the restrictions. A bill has been reintroduced by Rep. Walter Jones, Republican of North Carolina, to allow coverage of the arrival ceremonies for war dead at American military installations around the world.

While serving under President Bush, Gates had bowed to the U.S. armed services' concerns. Allowing media coverage at Dover Air Force base, they believed, would place a burden on the families, who would feel obligated to be present at arrival ceremonies. That, in turn, could delay the return of remains to their final destination, while placing a financial hardship on families.

The Pentagon has consistently argued that the ban on media coverage of the fallen at Dover (and at any interim stop on their way home) was driven by privacy concerns and respect for the wishes of families, and was not an effort to conceal the image of flag-draped coffins from the public.

"The principal focus of the policy is to protect the wishes and the privacy of families during their time of great loss and grief," says Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, who denies there is any ulterior motive to blunt the impact of casualties.

"There is nobody more than the United States military and the Department of Defense who understands the true cost in terms of lives and blood, and wants to ensure the American public knows the true consequence of war," Whitman says.

Among the critics who have been known to question the Pentagon's motives is the former senior senator from Delaware, where Dover Air Force Base is located.

Joe Biden, now Obama's vice president, said in 2004 of the ban, '"The idea that they're essentially snuck back into the country under the cover of night so that no one can see that their casket has arrived I just think is wrong."

Under new guidance from his commander in chief, Gates appears ready to perform an about-face.

"I think that looking at it again makes all kinds of sense," Gates told reporters. "I think, if the needs of the families can be met, and the privacy concerns can be addressed; the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better. So I'm -- I'm pretty open to -- to whatever the results of this review may be."

The ban has been in place for nearly two decades. Before that, the Pentagon allowed media coverage at Dover, even during the unpopular Vietnam War. President Ronald Reagan attended services at Dover for U.S. Marines killed in Lebanon in 1983 and for the return of the remains of space shuttle Challenger astronauts in 1986.

The Pentagon's formal ban dates to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but its origins are rooted in a 1989 incident which infuriated White House officials in the George H.W. Bush administration.

On December 21, 1989, the day after the U.S. invasion of Panama, President Bush was engaged in some lighthearted banter with reporters during a White House press conference.

At that moment, unbeknownst to the president, the first casualties of the assault were arriving at Dover, and several television networks (ABC, CBS and CNN) had switched to a split-screen image, juxtaposing the jocular president against the grim reality of the invasion he ordered.

It was the beginning of the end not just of live coverage, but of any photography or media coverage of war dead returning to the United States.

CNN's question has unleashed a flood of calls for an end to the 18-year-old ban.

"Time has come to rescind the Pentagon policy," editorialized the Seattle Times, "particularly because the 1991 ban put in place by President George H.W. Bush was never about privacy considerations. It was always a transparent effort to hide the human costs of war."

A New York Times editorial argued, "There's a propaganda component to waging every war, but the Bush administration went to extraordinary lengths to hide the human cost of these conflicts."

As strongly as some critics charge that the Pentagon is cynically manipulating media coverage to hide the true cost of war, others believe the news media's desire for access is less about honoring the fallen than it is about exploiting the deaths as a form of anti-war protest.

In 2004, when ABC's Ted Koppel on "Nightline" recited the names of 721 dead, he explained, "Our goal tonight was to elevate the fallen above the politics and the daily journalism. He said the reading "was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement."

Others didn't see it that way. "Everyone knows that the phony homage paid to our war dead is nothing more than a protest from American liberals that have been anti-U.S. military and anti-Republican at least since the late 1960s," says Chris Plante, a former CNN Pentagon producer who is now a conservative talk show host on WMAL radio in Washington.

"Unlike the New York Times, the military takes into account the families of our troops killed in war. The Pentagon actually has to be concerned about the widows, the children and the parents of the dead. The funerals have been open to the press, if the family will allow it. It's up to them, not to Obama voters with press passes. What more reasonable policy could there be?" Plante argues.

If the recent past in any guide, the Pentagon is likely to ease the restrictions, while not necessarily granting full access to Dover Air Force base.

When some family members complained last year that news media were kept so far away from funerals at Arlington National Cemetery that television news crews could not effectively see or record the memorials, the Secretary of the Army issued new rules in September to allow closer access, so long as families specifically requested it.

Gina Gray, the cemetery's former public relations director who was fired after complaining about the restrictive policy believes the families, not the government, should set the rules. "Thus far, the decisions have been made by government officials, many [of whom] have never lost a loved one in combat, and they have taken away the 'human factor' when it comes to sacrifice and war."

"It is far easier for a nation to accept death when the faces of those who died are blurred, and stories of their lives are muffled behind bureaucratic shenanigans," she says.

Gray, a former soldier who served in Iraq, summed up her feelings in an e-mail: "Whether you are for or against the war, the sacrifices made by so few should be memorialized and honored, not hidden and forgotten by generations to follow. Would the soldiers of WWII be considered the "Greatest Generation" if those in power had chosen to hide the fact that death is a necessity in war, and sacrifice is essential in the preservation of life? The ceremonial honors bestowed upon those who have sacrificed for their country is something that should be revered, not hidden, and their lives celebrated because there are too few Americans who truly pay for their freedom."

Jamie McIntyre is a former CNN senior Pentagon correspondent, who is studying at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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