James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Soldiers still dying, but at least photos may be unburied

Posted by James McPherson on February 26, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces today that the Pentagon is overturning a Bushian policy that pretends dead soldiers don’t exist. (The ban on pictures of flag-draped coffins actually started under George H.W. Bush during the Persian Gulf War–another war in the region, as I and others have pointed out–that might never have begun without a misleading public relations effort.)

There have been occasional breaks from the official ban, but its reversal is overdue. Those favoring rejection of the “Dover policy” included the Army Times and the National Press Photographers Association. Families, who are split on the issue but mostly seem to favor the ban (apparently trusting the government more than they do the media, despite their losses), will still be allowed to keep the press away from their own deceased loved ones.

Call today’s action a partial victory for reason. After 9/11, George W. Bush told us to “go shopping.” In the meantime, the real price for his ensuing folly has remained largely hidden. You can get a better picture of that cost with two databases from the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Same-day update: Those who would protest overturning the ban might want to check out how sensitive and sensible the media can be at times of tragedy. Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News photographer Todd Heisler and reporter Jim Sheeler produce “A Final Salute” about a fallen Marine. Unfortunately, the News is closing its doors tomorrow, another in a recent series of great newspaper losses. Web content may be fine, but the best of it is still produced by the mainstream news organizations that are now going under.

12 Responses to “Soldiers still dying, but at least photos may be unburied”

  1. jonolan said

    If I believed for one bare, parched second that the media would honor our fallen instead of exploiting them, I’d agree with the removal of the ban. Sadly for America one cannot so trust the media. They are no longer the allies of Americans and haven’t been for some time.

  2. Adam said

    I find this just so upsetting. Of everything we ask these military families to give to this country, why can we not just give them one moment of peace!? Just one moment to them and them alone! There is absolutely no need for any media present. When a family in this new horrible state of mind the last thing they want is to be bombarded by requests to have the coffin photographed. This is a disgrace. Leave the families alone – for just a moment.

  3. James McPherson said

    Thanks to both of you for the comments. Though the logistics apparently haven’t been finalized, I doubt that the families will be “bombarded with requests.” I suspect that the families will simply tell the military their wishes at the time the arrangements are made for them to meet the coffins, and that the military will then tell the media which arrivals they can film and which they can’t.

    Also keep in mind that many military families actually want the media there (I would, were I in that position). One newspaper (in Colorado, I think–I’ll try to find a link) actually did an amazing story and slideshow about a soldier’s death.

  4. Hannah Stevens said

    Two people here think it is exploiting the dead soldiers to allow the acknowledgment of the dead coming home. I see it quite differently. To bring them home in secrecy is wrong and sends a message that they never existed anyway, why tell Americans about their deaths. And to let people know they have arrived home and on our soil tells all that we honor their service to their country. The reason, as you might know that the press was not allowed to photograph the caskets was because the administrations didn’t want the public to know how many dead soldiers were coming home; that is disgraceful. How sad that people would go along with that. But then we re-elected a buffoon of a president a second time and that shows how ignorant we are in America. But we finally got it right this time.

  5. Cassandra said

    Also keep in mind that many military families actually want the media there (I would, were I in that position). One newspaper (in Colorado, I think–I’ll try to find a link) actually did an amazing story and slideshow about a soldier’s death.

    That was a Marine wife, and the fact that she was able to do this very easily WITHOUT subjecting military families to intrusive media requests just proves the point that there was no need to lift this ban. It was Lt. Cathey whose return was covered and the coverage was excellent. It won a Pulitzer, and military bloggers linked to it and wrote about it.

    Families already *have* the freedom to invite the media into their private grieving process if they want to. There was no reason to do this, except that the media insist on politicizing the deaths of our soldiers and Marines. They want to use their images to score political brownie points, and that is obscene. No one who has paid any attention at all can possibly be unaware that people are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are reminded of it 24/7.

    What people like you can’t possibly understand is how painful many of those reminders are for military families, especially when ghouls like the NY Times have a unmitigated gall to post a video of a good man dying. Disgusting.

    And you trust these people?

  6. jonolan said

    Strange, Hannah – the numbers, names, and manner of demise of every soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan was made almost immediately public, and normally reported upon by the media – often with a certain glee it seemed. All that was ever denied was a photo-op with the coffins.

    Now I admit that I’m prejudiced. I served and lost comrades closer than kin during the course of it and I’d hate to see them exploited.

    You do make some valid points though about giving the people a chance to honor our dead for their service. It’s not like we could have a parade or ceremony for them; Code Pink and Move On would be sure to interrupt it in the most publicly vile way that they could – and that could lead to “unpleasantness.”

  7. James McPherson said

    “No one who has paid any attention at all can possibly be unaware that people are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are reminded of it 24/7.”

    Considering the price we’re paying in both lives and money, I don’t think we’re reminded enough (though of course the reminders are far more obvious and numerous for the families themselves). What I don’t get, frankly, is why showing a picture of a dying soldier is considered to be more obscene than the fact that soldiers are dying, and dying in a war that should not be taking place–a war that the New York Times supported (the Times was later forced to apologize after it revealed that it had published faulty government-supported information during the buildup to war).

    So as far as trust goes, I’m skeptical about all parties involved. But especially about government, in the same way that Republicans used to be skeptical before the neo-cons took over the party.

    And in regard to potential protests, of course the worst have come from a group that I think almost everyone would find to be obscene, the Westboro Baptist Church. A number of communities have had ceremonies for the dead, and as far as I know, neither Move On nor Code Pink (the members of which donate phone cards to soldiers in Iraq, visit VA hospitals, and protest the lack of benefits that active service members receive) have ever engaged in any protest that would detract from a military funeral.

  8. jonolan said


    You are right about Code Pink and Move On never interfering with a private funeral – unlike the filth from Westboro Baptist Church, who I really don’t want to talk about because my view of them and what should be done about them violates both the law and Constitution – a flaw I’m forced to accept in myself.

    I was referring to a public ceremony though, not private burials and I apologize for not making that clear enough. I would expect Code Pink and Move On operatives to interfere with such things with possibly unfortunate results.

    As for the showing of the dying and dead being obscene, it isn’t in and of itself. It’s how the media was likely to use / spin those images that is obscene and evil.

    You’re right to be skeptical though. I am too. I’m just more skeptical of the media, with its long history of betraying our troops, than I am of the government – even Obama’s.

  9. zelda said


    The obscenity is the war……..the dead need to speak.

    They can say look…look at all of us……and for what did we die??

  10. jonolan said

    That’d be OK, zelda, if it were possible. Sadly, what would likely happen is that the media would “put words in their mouths.”

  11. zelda said

    Maybe…and probably. But nothing is impossible ya know.
    I feel people are smarter than that.
    You are.
    I am.
    These blogs show people are thinking …….for the most part.And the ones that aren’t stick out like a sore thumb and give credence to those that do think.
    It never does anything positive to give up to those who would manipulate us.
    We can do it………….
    Screw the media.
    Stand with truth……..we won’t fall.

  12. […] to see the policy on pictures of American’s returning war dead overturned. I believe that covering those dead is both a sign of respect for those who died, and one of many areas in which the media have fallen […]

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