Obama’s accomplishments: Lifting the media blackout at Dover

At the outset of the first Gulf War, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney imposed a ban on photographs and broadcast coverage of the arrival of war casualties at Dover Air Force Base [Delaware]. The media blackout lasted 18 years, until, in February 2009, President Obama ended it.

That’s a change worth remembering. The Obama administration’s move restores press access to the honor ceremonies that accompany the arrivals, which had been the practice from World War II through the Panama invasion of 1989.

The media blackout started during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, continued through the Clinton years, and extended through Bush II [with a few exceptions, mostly implemented for political/pr reasons.]  Bush I spun the blackout as a way to shield grieving families from media glare. Critics saw it as a way to hide the human cost of war.

The family-protection argument—while having some shred of plausibility—was weak from the beginning, and to most observers it was a thinly veiled attempt to limit the public-relations damage that could result from recurring images of flag-draped coffins.  In addition, say some, Bush I didn’t want public opinion to shift away from supporting Gulf War I—which was supposed to be high-tech, precise and possibly even bloodless—by seeing evidence contradicting that propaganda. One purported genesis of the ban took place earlier, during the 1989 invasion of Panama: During a press conference, George H.W. was embarrassed when—as he spoke—all three major television networks went into split-screen mode, simultaneously showing H.W. speaking and joking, while a military transport arrived at Dover, disgorging flag-draped caskets.

When the ban was imposed in 1991, then-Senator Joe Biden, who represented Delaware, objected, calling it “shameful that soldiers’ remains were being snuck back into the country under the cover of night.”

The Bush-era ban was, in one sense, ironic. Photos of dead soldiers and flag-draped coffins, and media coverage of military funerals, have long been used as propaganda tools to inflame public opinion against an enemy and to justify wars. And one might have expected George H.W. and George W. Bush to use those props to pimp their own military adventures. That they took the opposite tack—to cover up the casualties of war—might seem out of character, except for the lessons they and their advisers apparently took from Vietnam-era news coverage. For years, the conservative party line has been that the news media “lost” Vietnam for America. Of course, that’s not true: it was America’s failed policies—military, political and diplomatic—that created the Vietnam debacle. But there’s no doubt that prime-time coverage of wounded, dying and dead soldiers in the field and in caskets helped turn public opinion against that war.

In fact, images from Dover are considered so powerful that in the 1990s, politicians and generals began using the phrase “the Dover test” to assess whether Americans support a war or other military action by public reaction to returning war casualties.

And thus was born the Dover media blackout. Its birth and nearly two-decade life infuriated the press, many politicians, anti-war activists and even some military families. The news media filed and lost a first-amendment challenge to the ban, but in 2005, a Freedom of Information Act challenge forced the release of hundreds of images taken by the military’s own photographers. Unfortunately, the FOIA challenge resulted in an unexpected consequence: Realizing that, under FOIA, “it had no basis to withhold its own images, the military stopped taking photos documenting the return of fallen soldiers.”

Then, after he was inaugurated in 2009, President Obama asked for a review of the ban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the blanket restriction made him uncomfortable. The National Press Photographers Association called for the ban to be lifted, and the White House News Photographers Association joined in. Both organizations offered their assistance to draw up new guidelines for media operations at Dover” to insure both decorum and the appropriate level of press access so taht the arrivals can be well covered while maintaining the solemn and dignified atmosphere the military is concerned with protecting.” In February 2009, when President Obama ended the blackout, it was a victory for the First Amendment, freedom of the press and the public’s right to know.

Under the new Pentagon policy, families of fallen servicemen will decide whether to allow media coverage of their return. If several bodies arrive on the same flight, coverage will be allowed only for those whose families have given permission.

“This reversal of two decades of policy is an important and welcome milestone for the American people, “says Professor Ralph Begleiter, professor of political communication at the University of Delaware. “This decision restores to its rightful, honorable place the immense value of the sacrifice American troops make on behalf of their nation. The Pentagon’s reversal of the news media ban should also result in the military itself returning immediately to documenting with its own photographers the honorable return of war casualties – and making those images public. That public documentation by the government should not be subject to anyone’s veto.”

[Author’s note: I’m not a fan of the hyperbolic terms routinely used to describe dead and wounded soldiers. I’m not sure what dress uniforms, military ceremonies,  21-gun salutes or the playing of Taps has to do with “honoring” people who shouldn’t have been in a war in the first place. And I’m aware that there’s danger in making their return into an event that glorifies war and celebrates unquestioning “patriotism.” But through the years, thousands of human beings have arrived maimed or dead at Dover–and even more at other casualty reception centers. That’s a fact that should not be hidden from the American public, and I’m glad to know that we now have a President who agrees with that idea.]