Army refining policy on media coverage of Arlington burials

By Jeff Schogol,
Courtesy of Stars and Stripes
Friday, August 8, 2008

At Arlington National Cemetery, families receive a folded flag, and the thanks of a grateful nation.

They leave behind a son, a brother, a father, a sister, a mother, or someone else who they hold dear.

The pain of burying a loved one can be made worse by an aggressive media, or eased by the opportunity to tell that servicemember’s story.

Under proposed revisions to the policy of media access at Arlington National Cemetery, the family’s wishes would drive what media can and cannot do.

“What the family wants, the family gets,’” said Stephanie Hoehne, principal deputy chief of Army public affairs.

Army Secretary Peter Geren ordered a review of media coverage at Arlington in July following a Washington Post column on Gina Gray, a former spokeswoman at the cemetery who claims she was fired for pushing for more media access at funerals.

Geren could see proposed revisions to the policy for covering funerals next week, said Hoehne said at a roundtable with journalists on Friday. Also attending were representatives from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The new policy calls for casualty assistance officers to read from an approved script when they ask if the family wants media to cover their loved-ones’ funerals, Hoehne said.

“Our intent is to ensure there is no attempt to persuade the family one way or the other,” she said.

Under the policy, families would be given options for media coverage of the funeral, including “limited audio coverage.”

“When limited audio coverage is permitted, only the Chaplain, cleric, or in the absence of a chaplain or cleric, an officiant or main speaker designated by the family, will wear a single microphone to permit recording and transmission of the eulogy at graveside,” the draft policy said.

Reporters at the roundtable suggested that the Army define “limited” coverage and expand the family’s options for media coverage to allow them to have a reporter to sit in the back row of the funeral if the family so desires.

“All of us want to be respectful … We don’t want to make a mess out there. We don’t want to disturb the ceremony,” said Michel DuCille, assistant managing editor for photography at the Washington Post.

Another issue was whether reporters can photograph the moment when a loved one is presented with the flag.

“I would say if that the media is authorized to cover the funeral, they are authorized to cover the entire ceremony,” Hoehne said.

But that hasn’t happened in the past, DuCille said.

“Either we’re removed before the flag is presented or right after the flag is presented, and you must leave now; and the presumption is we want you out of here before the family begins to engage with each other, get emotional, greet each other, and so leave now,” DuCille said.

Families ask for pictures of the service, he said.

“For the grieved, what they’re doing here is going to be framed forever, and if they don’t get the shot, it’s – the story is just lacking,” said Joe Davis, of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

New media policy coming for Arlington burials
By William H. McMichael
Courtesy of Navy Times
Friday August 8, 2008

Conversations between Arlington National Cemetery officials and family members regarding media coverage of funerals would be strictly scripted in an effort to develop a clear understanding of the family’s wishes, according to a new draft policy being considered by Army Secretary Pete Geren.

And if family members give their consent for “limited audio coverage,” the main speaker at the service will be able to wear a wireless microphone so nearby reporters can hear the remarks.

Army officials unveiled the proposed policy in an unusual Friday afternoon roundtable with reporters and representatives of veterans groups, soliciting criticisms and suggestions to bring the policy into sharper focus. The Army secretary has oversight responsibility for Arlington.

The outsiders were invited to comment because coverage of funerals at Arlington has come under fire in recent months, sparked by a Washington Post column on the April 23 funeral of Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Billy Hall that blasted Arlington officials for keeping the media out of earshot and at a disadvantageous camera angle despite the fact that the family granted permission for coverage.

A woman recently fired as Arlington’s public affairs officer, Gina Gray, says that was the doing of Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery’s deputy director. She told Military Times that Higginbotham has made a practice of calling back families who have consented to coverage and trying to talk them out of their decision, sometimes successfully.

Higginbotham “categorically” denies making such calls and says Arlington works hard to give reporters the best possible access. No Arlington officials were present at the roundtable.

Asked how any new policy could prevent the making of such calls if the allegations are true, Stephanie Hoehne, principal deputy chief of Army public affairs, replied: “That’s an allegation that I’m not here to address.”

But she said there are “two steps to addressing” such concerns: ensuring that the policy is right, and examining how to execute that policy.

The draft policy certainly seems fashioned to more sharply define who can communicate with families on coverage. It says that families will have “primacy” in deciding on news coverage, that the casualty assistance officer assigned to the grieving family “or an administrator designated” by the Arlington superintendent will ask for the family’s decision, and that a pre-approved script will be used to conduct the conversation.

The intent, Hoehne said, is that the script will be read by the casualty assistance officer. Hoehne said the wording of the script has not yet been finalized, but her intention is that “the script does not influence the family one way or the other.”

The family would also be asked specific questions regarding coverage and, if limited audio coverage is granted, made aware that a chaplain or the main speaker will wear a wireless microphone to allow reporters to hear what is said. Coverage would be limited to the ceremony itself, and media would not be allowed to approach family members on the spot for interviews or photographs.

But that rule applies only to funeral services at Arlington, not outside the actual service, Hoehne said.

The casualty assistance officer would be given a phone number for Army public affairs to pass along should the family have questions.

The distance between the media and the funeral party was not detailed in the draft policy; it says photographers would be placed “in an area designated” by the Arlington superintendent. Those in attendance at the roundtable recommended that this provision be worded more precisely.

Discussion followed about placing responsibility for public affairs at Arlington back in the hands of the Military District of Washington and its public affairs office, since trained and qualified public affairs officers with the authority to act would know how to resolve differences over proximity and other potential conflicts. MDW was removed from that responsibility for Arlington several years ago.

Public affairs responsibilities will be spelled out in the execution policy, Hoehne said.

The key to successfully implementing the policy, she said, will be to get casualty assistance officers properly trained so that they understand the intent.

“The intent is no longer to figure out a reason to bar the media,” Hoehne said. “The intent is to find ways to accommodate the media as the family wishes … that the family is genuinely given the opportunity to decide, for themselves, what they want to do, with awareness of what the options are and what that means.”

Asked by Joe Davis of Veterans of Foreign Wars if the spirit of the draft policy is being implemented “right now,” Hoehne replied: “I can’t answer that, because I am not observing the execution.”

The script to be used will be written once the policy is approved. Once the policy is firmed up — Hoehne expects to have a final draft for Geren to review sometime next week — the Army will fashion the script and the execution policy document, she said.

Media access to funerals allegedly discouraged
Ex-employee says Arlington official contacted families about media allowance
By William H. McMichael
Courtesy of Navy Times
Friday August 8, 2008

The former spokeswoman for Arlington National Cemetery says the facility’s No. 2 official has been calling military families to try to talk them out of media coverage of their loved ones’ funerals, despite his denials that he does so.

Gina Gray, who was fired June 27 after 2½ months on the job, said Deputy Director Thurman Higginbotham told her in early May that he had been making such calls for about a year — while denying he did so at least three times, including once in an April 30 meeting with Pentagon reporters to discuss the cemetery’s media policy.

Gray, an advocate for a more welcoming policy for the media at the iconic cemetery, said Higginbotham also frequently asserted that many families have told him they don’t want media coverage. But after reviewing all Arlington paperwork for troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001 and buried at the cemetery, Gray found that 63 percent of the families agreed to media coverage, wishes relayed through their casualty assistance officers to Arlington officials.

Higginbotham said the figure is essentially correct, but he denies he ever said families don’t want media coverage. In Gray’s 2½ months on the job, he said, 36 percent of the 11 families who buried war veterans at Arlington agreed to allow coverage.

“Based on those numbers, how can I or anyone say families don’t want media?” Higginbotham said. “Simply put, I never said that.”

Higginbotham said he calls families only if their wishes for funeral arrangements have not been forwarded by their assigned casualty assistance officers, “or to clarify information when their … preferences are incomplete.”

He “categorically” denied that he has called families to talk them out of media coverage.

If Gray’s assertions are correct, however, it would indicate a concerted effort at Arlington, apparently led by Higginbotham, to limit media coverage of wartime military funerals at the nation’s leading and most visible military cemetery.

Most military burials take place outside Arlington at national military or private cemeteries. While media coverage of military burials at private cemeteries is a local matter, coverage generally is allowed at national military cemeteries.

Gray said any effort to deter a family’s assent to news coverage of funerals works against the military’s interests because the stories underscore the wartime sacrifice of service members.

“The media is not the enemy,” said Gray, a former soldier and 12-year veteran of Army public affairs.

“It’s ridiculous that Arlington should have any kind of hostile relationship with the press,” added Mark Zaid, Gray’s lawyer.

Gray said her stance led her supervisors to limit her authority, constantly track her comings and goings, occasionally refuse to reply to her e-mails or even speak to her and, finally, to fire her.

One Army official familiar with the situation said Gray is “totally on the level” and also confirmed her account of what appears to be a power struggle at Arlington over the conduct of public affairs and the relationship of cemetery officials to their public affairs officers and the media.

“It’s a hostile work environment, clearly,” the official said. “There needs to be some oversight over there.”

The federal regulation that lays out visitors’ rules for Arlington requires only that the family of the deceased consent to media coverage. The Army public affairs regulation on Arlington — the Army is the executive agency for the cemetery — also makes no reference to limitations on media coverage of military burials.

Equally vague are rules that govern how close reporters and photographers who are granted permission to cover a funeral can be to the next of kin — a question that arose after the funeral of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Billy Hall on April 23, when the media was kept at a distance and out of earshot.

The words spoken at the service, as well as the images, are considered important elements of such stories.

A Washington Post column derided Arlington’s handling of that funeral. Gray said that at a subsequent staff meeting, held two days before the media roundtable, Higginbotham stated: “We need to make [reporters] think we work hard” on giving them the best possible position to cover funerals.

Gray said she argued for better positioning and access, citing Army and Pentagon regulations. She said Higginbotham replied: “We don’t follow those rules.”

Higginbotham denies making either statement.

At the media roundtable, officials handed out “funeral schematics” indicating the media position relative to the next of kin for both Army and Marine Corps funerals, noting that the distance is up to the family but is also based on the terrain at the burial site. Gray said she was told to make up the diagrams the day before the meeting.

One watchdog group has concluded that the only policy at Arlington is what Higginbotham wants it to be. “The new unofficial policy, enforced with apparent whimsy by cemetery officials, reeks of politics,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “It does not serve the best interests of the public or … military families.”

Dalglish said Higginbotham has not responded to repeated requests for an explanation of the Arlington media policy.

Army Secretary Pete Geren is reviewing that policy and reportedly met with Arlington officials July 31, though Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Geren is not looking into Gray’s firing. Geren did not respond to a request for comment.

Gray was the cemetery’s third public affairs officer in three years. All were women, and all, like Gray, were former soldiers. She said they all shared the same contentious work experience at Arlington.

Higginbotham said the other two spokeswomen simply moved on to new positions and were subsequently promoted.

Gray filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Higginbotham, who is black, and his deputy, Phyllis White, alleging a hostile work environment, as well as race and gender discrimination.

She said that from the day she began in her GS-12 position, officials sought to limit her ability to do it — demanding that she not escort media into Arlington without notifying Higginbotham and White, for example.

The job description states that the public affairs specialist is “the sole official spokesperson and primary contact for local and national media, which requires immediate responsiveness. … Evaluates and approves or denies media requests …”

Gray also said she was told repeatedly after internal staff meetings not to inform Arlington Superintendent John Metzler about what had transpired. Sources said Metzler delegates nearly all operational control to Higginbotham.

Gray’s supervisors found fault with petty matters, as well, she said. After a meeting with White three weeks before she was fired, Gray said White sent her a memo that included the admonition: “No pin-up posters in the office.”

The poster, Gray said, was a photo of Chesty the Bulldog, the Marine Corps mascot.

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