A Veil is Lifted  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2009

A Veil is Lifted   

The ban on media coverage of flag-draped coffins is overturned, but will much change? Online Exclusive posted 3/3/09 11:30 a.m.

By Jamie McIntyre
     


Former Army Staff Sgt. Gina Gray had more than a passing interest in last week's abrupt Pentagon shift lifting the 18-year-old ban on media coverage of returning war dead at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

Gray was fired last year from her civilian job as public relations director at Arlington National Cemetery after publicly advocating that families, not government bureaucrats, make the call over how much media coverage should be allowed at graveside services.

So when Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the about-face, it sounded to Gray a lot like vindication.

"I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected, on an individual basis by the families of the fallen," Gates said February 26. "We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."

Arlington Cemetery officials deny her firing was related to the disagreement over news coverage, and insist they always put the wishes of family members first.

"The Army is posturing big time now, and claiming they did nothing wrong when they fired me, Gray says. "Given the fact the media policies have been reversed, it suggests I was fired without merit."

Gray's complaints, first reported by the Washington Post, led to an Army review and an eventual order last September by Army Secretary Pete Geren relaxing restrictions that for years had kept reporters and television news crews so far away from graveside services they could see little and hear almost nothing.

Gray, who is pursuing a wrongful dismissal case against the Army and cemetery officials, believes her bosses were deliberately hiding the human cost of war.

"The DoD should be ashamed that it has taken this long to address this issue, and Secretary Geren should be held accountable for allowing Arlington National Cemetery officials to fly under the radar with respect to their actions," Gray says.

Questioned by reporters, Gates sidestepped the issue of whether the Dover ban was an attempt by previous administrations to blunt the impact of casualties on public support for the war effort. "As far as I'm concerned, that's ancient history, and I'm not going to try and figure out the motive."

THE ARLINGTON MODEL

Nevertheless, on the day the ban was lifted, the White House pointed to the revised Arlington policy as a model for how media coverage should be regulated. "What the president supports is a policy consistent with what we have at Arlington cemetery, which allows the families .. to make that decision, and protect their privacy," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs just prior to Gates' announcement.

But Gina Gray argues the new Arlington rules remain far too restrictive, especially for grieving families who may be unaware of all the options for news coverage.

"The media policy is still vague, not clearly outlining the family rights to define coverage," Gray says.

When Secretary Geren ordered an end to the Arlington policy that for years kept the media out of earshot of funerals, he stopped short of giving families full control over news coverage. The revised rules still limit which parts of graveside services can be recorded, and confine the news media to a restricted area, despite a family's expressed desire.

"The families should define what level of coverage they want," Gray argues. "If they want a reporter to sit next to them, they should be allowed to do that. It shouldn't be up to cemetery officials to determine that for them."

DETAILS TO COME

News media coverage at Dover has been prohibited since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, with only a few rare exceptions, and for the past two decades the Pentagon has adamantly argued allowing coverage would amount to an unwarranted invasion of privacy and place an unacceptable emotional and financial burden on families.

Secretary Gates has appointed a working group to come up with practical guidelines to permit coverage, if families agree.

And, while Gates' decision is being hailed as a triumph for openness and press freedom, some in the media question the commitment of news organizations to actually take advantage of the access they complained so loudly they were being denied.

"What are we going to do with this victory that we have achieved?" asks veteran CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr.

Appearing on CNN's media analysis program "Reliable Sources" Starr said, "We will be there when the first plane returns, and we will say great words on TV.. [but] are we going to be there six hours later when the second plane comes in? What happens when a family says, 'Yes, I want the media, I want my loved one remembered,' and nobody shows up? That's my question."

It's still unclear how much access will be allowed, and whether, for instance, the objections of a single family could block coverage of a group of returning remains, or how much the cameras will be permitted to record.

DIVERSITY OF OPINION

Relatives of the war dead are split about allowing the media to photograph the arrival of the remains of their loved ones at Dover, according to groups that advocate on behalf of families.

"The overarching concern for all families is knowing that their loved one's service and sacrifice will be remembered and honored," says Ami Neiberger-Miller, spokesperson for TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. "We welcome a policy that puts control into the hands of surviving families and allows them to make these very personal decisions."

Neiberger-Miller's brother, U.S. Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in Iraq in August 2007, and she welcomed news media to cover his funeral at Arlington.

"My own family permitted media coverage of my brother's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, and that coverage permitted our hometown to also participate in both grieving his death and honoring his life," Neiberger-Miller says.

But Neiberger-Miller has reservations about granting the media unrestricted access to funerals and arrival ceremonies. "I personally do not like the gleeful nature in which journalists have welcomed this policy change. I would hope that journalists, and our country for that matter, would not lose sight of the fact that the people who die in service to our country are someone's spouse, parent, child, sibling, grandchild, fiancé, niece, nephew or some other relative."

Families also have legitimate concerns about how the images will be used, especially if they are posted on the Internet, where they can be easily lifted and re-posted on political Web sites. Remembering her brother's funeral, Neiberger-Miller says, "It bothers me to know that media outlets sell to anyone with a credit card, the images taken at that funeral, including his casket."

Along with the new access, she argues, comes an ethical obligation for news organizations to review their policies for distributing images of funerals and flag-covered caskets.

"We realize that with the Internet, issues of copyright infringement are common and can't be completely stopped, but the media could respond quickly when a problem is reported," she says. "They should also provide copies of photos and images to the families without hassle and free of charge. Some outlets currently charge families, including the Washington Post, which I had to pay to get access to the photos from my brother's funeral."

Jamie McIntyre (jamiejmcintyre@gmail.com) covered the Pentagon and military issues as a CNN correspondent for 16 years. He is now studying at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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