Thursday, July 10, 2008

Media at Arlington: Can't the Families Decide?

[Not off-topic; please bear with us.]

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has a truly awful story today about former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gina Gray, who was recently fired as Director of Public Affairs at Arlington National Cemetery.


Because she facilitated media coverage, requested by the family, of funerals of American heroes killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are particularly concerned about the actions of Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham. Money quote:
Just 10 days on the job, she was handling media coverage for the burial of a Marine colonel who had been killed in Iraq when she noticed that Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery's deputy superintendent, had moved the media area 50 yards away from the service, obstructing the photographs and making the service inaudible. The Washington Sketch column on April 24 noted that Gray pushed for more access to the service but was "apparently shot down by other cemetery officials."

[Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates had his staff inquire with the cemetery about the article and was told that "the policy had not in any way changed," Gates's spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said yesterday. Geren, the Army secretary, added that "the policy has not changed, and I understand the practice hasn't, either."

That, however, is false. Through at least 2005 -- during Rumsfeld's tenure, no less -- reporters were placed in a location where they could hear the prayers and the eulogies and film the handing of the folded flag to the next of kin. The coverage of the ceremonies -- in the nearly two-thirds of cases where families permitted it -- provided moving reminders to a distracted nation that there was a war going on. But the access gradually eroded, and Gray arrived to discover that it was gone. [ . . . ]

[ . . . ] Gray contends that Higginbotham has been calling the families of the dead to encourage them not to allow media coverage at the funerals -- a charge confirmed by a high-ranking official at Arlington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Gray says Higginbotham told staff members that he called the family of the next soldier scheduled for burial at Arlington and that the family, which had originally approved coverage, had changed its mind. Gray charges that Higginbotham admitted he had been making such calls to families for a year and said that the families "appreciated him keeping the media out."

Higginbotham, White and Metzler did not respond to e-mail messages yesterday seeking their comment. An Army spokesman said Higginbotham and other Arlington officials call families only if their wishes regarding media coverage are unclear.
OYE Comment:

It should be a simple matter for the Department of Defense to prepare a [maximum two-page] info sheet on media coverage, providing basic information about the process. The families could also be asked to record their decision in writing, avoiding any additional contact.

Frankly, the families of those American heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice should be allowed to make their own decisions in peace, without second-guessing by Bush Administration officials. We sincerely doubt that Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham personally knows any enlisted servicemembers or junior officers - those most at risk in combat - because if he did, he would follow the wishes of their families.

Operation Yellow Elephant wants all the stories of our American heroes told. If the family wants to invite the media to cover the funeral, that's their right. It should be Arlington National Cemetery's privilege to help make that happen. We salute former Public Affairs Director Gina Gray for doing the right thing.

And a Question for George Will:

Did Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham call your assistant, Sarah Walton, to discuss media coverage at the funeral this week of her husband, LTC Jim Walton?

You brought it up in your July 6 column, "The Knock on the Door," so it's quite relevant to this posting. Thank you.


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