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Eye on the News

Paul Beston
The Media’s Coffin Politics
Blame the networks for the now-lifted ban on showing military caskets.
3 March 2009

After a review ordered by defense secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon has lifted an 18-year-old policy banning the media from photographing caskets of slain servicemen and servicewomen on their return home, most often to Dover Air Force Base. Overturning the ban had been a goal of President George W. Bush’s critics, who argued that preventing media coverage sanitized the costs of war in Iraq and allowed Americans to avoid confronting the harsh reality of dead troops. During its recent review of the ban, some in the Pentagon supported keeping it; Gates, who opposed it, frankly admitted that “there was a division in the building.” Good arguments exist for either policy: the new one in the interest of openness (and perhaps tribute) in a democracy bringing its fallen sons and daughters home; the old one in the interest of privacy, propriety, and morale. The new policy is predicated on military families’ giving consent on a case-by-case basis: if a family insists on privacy, the media must respect its wishes and hold off.

Many who opposed the ban believed that it originated with George W. Bush’s administration. But its true origins lie elsewhere, with another President Bush—and with an instance of media bias so odious that it is better called propaganda.

In force since the outset of the Gulf War in 1991, the ban was triggered by an incident in the aftermath of the invasion of Panama ordered by President George H. W. Bush in December 1989. According to the New York Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller:

In 1989, the television networks showed split-screen images of Mr. Bush sparring and joking with reporters on one side and a military honor guard unloading coffins from a military action that he had ordered in Panama on the other.
Mr. Bush, a World War II veteran, was caught unaware and subsequently asked the networks to warn the White House when they planned to use split screens. The networks declined.
At the next opportunity, in February 1991 during the Persian Gulf war, the Pentagon banned photos of returning coffins.

Writing in the American Journalism Review, Jamie McIntyre, a former CNN senior Pentagon correspondent, makes clear that the president was unaware that while he was conducting his press conference, “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.” McIntyre then writes ruefully: “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.”

It’s hard to think of any White House that wouldn’t have responded defensively to the media’s manipulation of such solemn images. But writing all these years later, neither Bumiller nor McIntyre finds it worth noting that three networks blatantly attempted to humiliate the president of the United States in creating such a toxic juxtaposition. From their perspective, what drove the ban was President Bush’s “embarrassment,” not the media’s naked attempt to defame a political leader.

Of course no president with a dash of decency and enough brainpower to keep his eyes open would engage in “jocular” behavior if he knew that his audience was watching flag-draped military caskets arrive home at the same time. Such was the furthest thing from President Bush’s mind. A commander in chief able to laugh about military deaths—the false picture that the split screen created—would hardly be worthy of public office.

Broadcast media this willing to use their immense influence to play politics with the issues of war and peace—and 18 years later, still so blind to their own role in events—are hardly worthy of public trust.

Paul Beston is the associate editor of City Journal.

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