With ban over, who should cover the fallen at Dover?

The lift of the media ban on homecomings of war casualties offers a personal look at the fallen -- and those who welcome them back to the United States. President Obama visited Dover Air Force Base on Oct. 29 to honor 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan.
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, DEL. -- When the first Bush administration banned the media from covering the arrival of the fallen at Dover Air Force Base during the Persian Gulf War nearly 20 years ago, the stated reason was to protect the families' privacy.

But in the six months since the controversial ban was lifted and 258 families were allowed to choose whether they wanted the media present, 60 percent said yes, according to the military.

In August, the Pentagon quietly amended the policy so that families were given a third option for coverage. Now they can have military camera crews cover the short, solemn ceremony at Dover, known as a dignified transfer, while barring professional news reporters. Fifteen percent more families have chosen this option, meaning that about 75 percent of all arrivals of the country's war dead are covered in some fashion.

But just because families consent to coverage doesn't mean news organizations are always interested. After First Amendment advocates fought for the right to document the arrival of the flag-draped metal caskets, dubbed "transfer cases" by the military, there are often just a handful of journalists on hand. More than a third of all ceremonies open to the media during the first six months were covered by a single outlet: the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the military, which had feared from the beginning that families who said yes to media coverage would be disappointed by the turnout, has provided its own crews to cover those events approved by the family and posts the images on the Web. As a result, the Defense Department has become one of the main distributors of the images of the fallen.

It's a development that troubles free speech advocates, who say the media, not the military, should capture the images the public sees.

"Taking pictures of the returning casualties to Dover is a measure of the human cost of war," said Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware who with the Natonal Security Archive successfully sued the Pentagon in 2004 to release its images of the fallen arriving at Dover. "Do you want the government ultimately to have control over what we see or not see? Or do you want independent observers, an independent press or media, relaying those images?"

Free speech vs. privacy

The arrival of war dead at Dover has long pitted free speech advocates against the government, which had been accused of using the ban to hide the horror of war from the public -- especially as the casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan began to climb. In 2004, Vice President Biden, then a U.S. senator from Delaware, said, "The idea that they are essentially snuck back into the country under the cover of night so no one can see that their casket has arrived, I just think is wrong."

This year, the Obama administration sought a middle ground. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates lifted the ban but said families should decide whether the media cover the homecomings of the fallen: "We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."

The first family offered a choice under the new policy was that of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers of Hopewell, Va., who was killed in Afghanistan on April 4. His wife approved coverage because she "wanted the world to see what was going on over there, to let the world see that it is bodies coming back," Eddie Myers, Phillip Myers's father, told The Post at the time.

When Army Spec. Daniel P. Drevnick was killed in Iraq in July, his father approved coverage for the same reason. Still, Ken Drevnick said he was glad the media were forbidden from taking pictures of family members, who stand behind a large bus that shields them from the media stationed just a few feet away.

"I think that's a good thing," Drevnick, of Woodbury, Minn., said, "because it was within 48 hours of me finding out that my son had been killed, and I was in no position to talk to the media."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company