The story behind the flag-draped coffin ban

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on March 9, 2009

Now that we have a Democrat in the White House, we won't have to worry about the media manufacturing embarrassing images of the President having fun while people in the armed forces are dying. That's certainly one of the reasons why President George W. Bush gave up golf after the War in Iraq started.

It was announced last month that the Obama administration had lifted the 18-year-old ban on photographs of the flag-draped coffins of America's fallen arriving in Dover.  What many people don't know is why the ban was instituted in the first place. City Journal's Paul Beston writes:

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.

For the record, the networks were right to decline notifying the president of their use of split-screen. They were wrong, however, to use the split screen to create the impression that the president was flippant about the lives lost when he ordered men into battle. Bush 41 was a World War II veteran and he certainly knew much better than any of the talking heads in the network control rooms what war entailed.

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.

Beston is right. And the media will be much more careful about creating a misimpression that makes President Obama look bad, after all, they've got a lot invested in his success.

Journalism. Wound. Self-inflicted.

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They don't want states, SCOTUS (at least not one that protects individual rights) or Senate. They want direct national control--& they want corporations to help implement policies & shut down expression that threatens them. I just wish they knew the definition of "fascist"

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