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Gaslight: Today in Media History, Fallen Soldier's Homecoming Photographed, Reported by Media - The LAMP

Gaslight: Today in Media History, Fallen Soldier’s Homecoming Photographed, Reported by Media

By April 6, 2011 News No Comments

Remains of Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers arrive at Dover Air Force Base, April 5, 2009. Photo: Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times

April 6, 2009: For the first time in 18 years, Americans saw news coverage of coffins returning from war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Near midnight on April 5, the body of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers arrived at Dover Air Force Base after he was killed by an explosive in Afghanistan on April 4. With the permission of his family, news media were allowed to photograph the flag-draped coffin as it was unloaded by the military honor guard.

The photography ban was lifted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February 2009 after years of debate. The ban was put in place in 1989 by Dick Cheney, who was at that time Secretary of Defense. In a moment of great embarrassment for the Administration, major news media outlets televised a split-screen of then-President George H.W. Bush joking at a White House press conference alongside live video of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. Debate around the ban concerned issues of privacy, politicization of the war and First Amendment rights. Arguments were made that prohibiting photos of the dead downplayed the war while inhibiting the national mourning process, and counter-arguments were made that the photos were disrespectful to family members, and that it would be inappropriate for the images to be used in a political debate.

But President Obama was elected under a banner of government transparency, and Gates ordered a review of the policy. It was found that as long as family members approved in advance, media were free to capture and publish photos of the dead returning from war. As Gates told reporters in advance of the final decision lifting the ban, “If the needs of families can be met and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better.”