Entry from February 27, 2009

A report in today’s (London) Daily Telegraph is striking to a cis-Atlantic reader because it is scarcely possible to imagine that it could ever appear in the American media of today. Parents of servicemen killed in Afghanistan talk positively about their dead children and the job they were doing when they died:

Rfn Gunn’s family including his mother, Janet, father, Mervyn and sister, Jessica said: “Jamie’s proudest desire was that he wanted to shine in life. He was a funny, popular lad who loved his mates and the girls but most of all we are so proud of our son, brother and grandson who will always shine in our hearts forever.” L/Cpl Paul Upton’s mother, Tina, said: “Paul had his life cut short doing a job he loved and he will be greatly missed by family and friends.” Corporal Tom Gaden’s mother, Judy, father, Nick, fiancée, Amanda, sister, Ruth and brother, Sam said: “Tom was an inspiration to the whole family. He was a soldier through and through and the rock that kept our family together. He was very loving, never judged anyone and was always very supportive, nothing was ever too much trouble for him.”

If the families of the fallen here were to say such things — as surely they have said them — their words would be almost certain either to be ignored or else to be put into a context which would make them seem to suggest that the finer qualities of the deceased were only further proof that their sacrifice had been a terrible waste and the fault of the government that had sent them into harm’s way. Think of the acres of coverage given to Cindy Sheehan back when she was a convenient stick with which to beat George W. Bush, and then see if you can remember any publicity being given to loved ones such as these.

This story comes particularly opportunely because it coincides with the Pentagon’s decision to rescind its ban on the media’s photographing the coffins of American servicemen killed in action. The Telegraph’s own Con Coughlin welcomes the move in a blog post: “What on earth was the Pentagon thinking of when it banned the media from showing the flag-draped coffins of fallen heroes from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? The wars might be unpopular with certain voters, but that should not detract from the heroism and bravery of those who have died fighting for their country.” As it happens, the New York Times story on the subject answers his question with a little history:

The original 1991 ban had its genesis in an embarrassment for the first President Bush. 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. At the next opportunity, in February 1991 during the Persian Gulf war, the Pentagon banned photos of returning coffins.

Perhaps Elisabeth Bumiller, the story’s author, thought it safe to retail this anecdote because it reflected badly on President Bush — as if it were mere personal vanity which had been affronted by the media’s mischievous and clearly malevolent juxtaposition.

But that editorial decision was also and inescapably a political act, obviously designed to advance the media’s own agenda as so many editorial decisions these days are. The media cannot be ignorant about the impression they are creating by using a split-screen; they cannot be doing it — or much else that is like it — accidentally. Thus, they are utterly disingenuous when they pretend that context is irrelevant and that they are merely reporting the facts. “The public has a right to see and to know what their military is doing, and they have a right to see the cost of that military action,” Mr Santiago Lyon, the director of photography for the Associated Press, is quoted as saying in the New York Times story. “I think what we had before was a form of censorship.”

Yes and quite right too. Once it was understood by everyone that the military authorities had not only a right but a duty to censor journalists’ reporting about war, since it must have an impact, for good or ill, on the morale not only of the home front but of the troops themselves. Now morale is not even mentioned as a consideration in the decision to remove yet another constraint upon the already all-but completely unconstrained media — which, in case Secretary Gates hasn’t noticed, have given ample proof over the last eight years of their willingness to abuse their freedoms in order to propagandize against the war. I wonder if they will change tack now that a president of their own mind and outlook is in charge of it? Perhaps they will. But if I were President Obama, I wouldn’t be counting on it.

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