The Ban on Military Pictures of Fallen Soldiers

Roundup: Media's Take

James T. Madore, in Newsday (April 18, 2004):

... [F]or more than a year, the Bush administration has strictly enforced a ban on media outlets taking pictures of soldiers' coffins being returned to U.S. military bases on grounds that it upsets mourners.

Critics say it's part of the White House's attempt to downplay the human cost of the war, which this month alone has killed at least 89 U.S. troops. As the casualties mount, the prohibition, whose origins date to 1991, has come under renewed scrutiny.

"We are disappointed and we protest the government denying news organizations access to those events of returning caskets," said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC News' "World News Tonight." "We all remember when the various attacks against the United States occurred and the pictures of those coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base were something no one easily forgets. It's difficult to try to match that emotion and visual" with other footage, he said.

At the Washington Post, executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. also decried the news blackout, saying, "We would like to provide our readers access to all aspects of the war in Iraq, including the photos of those who have given their lives for their country."

The current ban is in sharp contrast with recent history. During the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, the Pentagon encouraged coverage of its increasingly elaborate events for those killed in Egypt, Lebanon and Grenada. President Jimmy Carter was photographed praying over the remains of airmen killed in the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran, while his successor, Ronald Reagan, was shown pinning Purple Hearts to the caskets of Marines slain in El Salvador.

Publicity for such ceremonies continued until Jan. 21, 1991, when officials started to prohibit filming at the Dover base in Delaware, home to the military's largest mortuary and the primary arrival point for remains.

There is disagreement about the reasons for the ban. Historians say then-President George Bush was angered when TV networks used a split screen to air his news briefing with reporters, in which he was seen to laugh at one point, and the coffin ceremonies during the 1991 Gulf War.

Department of Defense officials, however, say the restrictions were to protect mourners.

"Over the years, the families [of deceased service personnel] have told us that their privacy is very important in the immediate aftermath of being notified of their loss," said an official, who requested anonymity.

Despite this, exceptions were made for the return of caskets from Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's 1996 plane crash in Croatia and the 1998 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. Officials also permitted public distribution of photographs from the coffin ceremonies for those killed in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000. And during the first two years of the current Bush administration, journalists photographed remains arriving at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.

But the Pentagon now says those pictures violated a total ban instituted in November 2001 on casket pictures at all U.S. bases and led to reiteration of that ban in March 2003 - the month the Iraq war began.

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