Posted by: Lauren--NY | September 29, 2009

Where’s the Flag-Draped Coffin?

“Journalism is an act of faith in the future.” ~Ann Curry

UPDATE 10/05/09: Anderson Cooper spoke to Broadcasting & Cable: “There’s a huge disconnect with the American people paying attention in Afghanistan,” says CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who recently spent a week embedded with the military at Jaker, a remote forward operating base in Helmand province. “These are not stories people are watching. Frankly, when I was there, “60 Minutes” was all over the place. CNN has a full-time correspondent there. There are people telling the stories. But I know for a fact that not a lot of Americans, no matter what they say, are interested or are willing to spend a lot of time watching. I think polls reflect that, ratings reflect that.” […] “Every time I’ve gone to Afghanistan and been embedded with troops, they have the same message, which is, folks back home have no idea what’s going on here,” says CNN’s Cooper. In 2006, Cooper spent several days with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. “They all told me the same story,” he says. “They would be back home for two weeks of R&R, and they were on a plane or in a bar and somebody would ask them, ‘Where are you serving?’ And when they said Afghanistan, the response was always, ‘Well, at least you’re not in Iraq,’ as if Afghanistan was incredibly easy. Every time I’ve been over there, the [soldiers] I have been with could not have been happier to have someone [telling] their stories.”

The article also noted that: “An Associated Press reporter lost a foot in an IED attack in August, the same month that CBS News Radio correspondent Cami McCormick was seriously injured during an attack in Logar province that killed an American soldier.”

I’m a member of a discussion website on which the political tide tends to lean heavily to the right. I thought I’d pick out some commentary to post here. None of the links are actually present in the discussion except the link to CPJ and the final one (to a CNN article on the final decision regarding media coverage of flag-draped coffins).

One of the more intelligent conservative posters surprised me with the following inanity:

“Back when Prs. Bush was the Commander in Chief, the incompetent press and many others in the anti-war movement complained about the policy against publishing pictures of flag draped coffins. The charge was that Prs. Bush was trying to sanitize the horror of war by keeping the powerful image from the public view.

So, now that Prs. Obama has been the Commander in Chief for 9 months, where are the calls for a change of policy? Where is the incompetent press’s accusations of cover up and prohibition? Where are the complaints from anti war activists?

While Prs. Bush was in office, the issue was elevated to a Constitutional Crisis… but now that they can’t use the images as a weapon against the president, they have just let it drop.”

Bear in mind that I do consider this guy to be one of the more intelligent posters.

One of the less intelligent conservatives came up with this genius in response:

“Well, since they drool all over Obama and act like adoring little puppies when he’s around they’ve conveniently forgotten that our soldiers are still in two wars and still dying. They seem to be dying at an even greater rate in Afghanistan and we don’t really hear much about that. Remember how the left screamed about the accidental deaths of civilians, too? Well, they’re still dying under Obama’s watch but they’re all strangely quiet now. I’ve come to the conclusion that they only care about people when they can make use of them.”

This is my response:

“That’s because you’re all watching Fox instead of CNN.

Anderson Cooper spent the entire week following Labor Day in Helmand Province, Afghanistan to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11–going on patrol with marines, giving them a platform to send messages to their loved ones, reporting on the statistics, reporting on the fact that they need more troops and that the war is not going well, giving marines a chance to talk to the cameras and tell us what’s really going on there. They showed that while tons of Americans think they’re over there in fancy bases with all the comforts of home, they’re actually living in tents, covered in dust with H1N1 lurking (which Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta both caught while they were there), with nothing but MREs for food and a few dumbbells for entertainment.

Dr. Gupta went inside the army hospital and showed our incredible military working on those civilians you mentioned and saving their lives every day.

Michael Ware, also of CNN, has been living in Iraq and Afghanistan for years reporting on these wars, and he didn’t change his technique just because Washington changes its colors. He’s still there. His vehicle was almost hit by an IED when he was shooting a piece for AC360.

The ratings were horrific. Nobody watched.

The “incompetent press” does what they have to do to get the advertising dollars to send these journalists over there, and real journalism doesn’t seem to making as much money as Glenn Beck’s Howard Beale-style rants.

Business wise, I tip my hat to Fox. They’re doing incredibly well. Bill O’Reilly’s demo ratings (ratings in the 25-54 age demographic, the target audience for advertisers) regularly beat CNN and MSNBC in total viewers. You can’t argue with their business model. It’s stellar. They’re raking it in. God bless ’em.

But I suggest you take a look at the website for the Committee to Protect Journalists at to see what the “incompetent press” has really been fighting against, with no help from Americans. We lost 120 journalists in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They’re out there, putting their lives on the line every day. Because of them, the information is out there, it just doesn’t seem to be very lucrative because, left or right, Democrat or Republican, Americans don’t seem to care.

Is it really the media’s fault? If reporting on the wars got killer ratings and raked in millions of advertising dollars, how fast do you think they’d have that business up and running and on the air? Yesterday, that’s when. And to their credit, people like Anderson Cooper use their star power to make sure it happens anyway, for the few hundred thousand of us who are watching.

So I don’t know if people drooling all over Obama are the problem, because while there are always blind followers and it’s never good, I doubt the four million people who watch “The O’Reilly Factor” every night (an absolutely unprecedented number for a cable audience) are the same people you’re referencing.

The cable news audience leans heavily to the right for whatever reason, and Cooper does an entire week that is all marines, all the time–and it was some of the best reporting his team has done these past few years, which is saying something because they’re good–and he can’t scrape together 500,000 viewers because apparently whatever Greta van Susteren had going on at 10:00 was more entertaining.

I don’t know why Americans don’t pay attention to international news. I don’t know how to fix it. But there are journalists in the field with their necks on the line to provide you with the information you claim “we don’t really hear much about,” so the only reason you’re not hearing about it is because you’re not paying attention, along with millions more just like you.

But the second Glenn Beck threatens to shoot himself on the 7:00 news, I’m sure you’ll be tuning in. Keep watching Fox and let me know when the flag draped coffins show up. I won’t be holding my breath.”

Later in the thread, a voice of reason:

“I might be completely wrong about this but I thought lifting the ban was under consideration a couple of (or more) months ago but there were conflicting opinions about whether the families of the fallen should have a say so about their loved one’s casket being photographed. I watched the arrival of our dead soldiers on the news every night during the war in Vietnam. Those images carried a lot of weight when it came to reminding the public of the true horrors of war.”

My response to this:

“You’re 100% correct.

I believe the first coverage that was allowed was at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where my cousin was stationed during his last few years in the service (he’s now the fire captain down there).

President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided that the decision on this media coverage should be left up to the families, as it’s the same policy that was already in place for airing the services at Arlington.

The media coverage is allowed when the family permits it; it just gets terrible ratings, so we don’t see it. See above.

Here’s the article on Dover and the final decision.”

Feel free to discuss in the comments section. Who’s at fault for the misinformation here? The media or the American public?

UPDATE: The original poster then clarified: “Laurie, actually, that is why I separate the “incompetent press” from the members of the press who actually do their jobs. Yes, there are actually many examples of “competent” and even excellent journalism out there. Thanks for giving us these examples.”

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  1. […] be about the wars in which we’re directly involved, and even that would be incredibly limited. As I’ve said on this blog before, Americans talk a big game when it comes to supporting the troops, but just try to get them to […]

  2. […] polling, ratings and focus groups do effect what makes it to print and what makes it to air. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–one of the biggest problems with American media is the American […]

  3. What I don’t understand (and possibly and underlying problem here) is what happened to unbiased reporting?

    On all networks, the shows that are getting the most press, the most attention, are the shows that are not technically NEWS programs; they are opinion-based programs that appeal to each individual’s already-formed opinion.

    The real news, the 5:00 or 10:00 programs that used to state the facts as they related to local, national, and international news are not watched and are losing their grip on reporting. While some reporters are honest, loyal reporters who uphold the ideals of journalism, too many are putting their own opinion into the story, even if it’s a matter of semantics. More than that, instead of pushing stories that really matter and would further our understanding of our current station in the world, we are instead subjected to stories about celebrities’ lives. News and entertainment have intertwined so much that for the average American, whether or not the stars of Twilight are dating is just as important as what is happening in Afghanistan.

    Tom Brokaw got out at a good time. I don’t want to know my reporter’s opinion about a story – I want to know what the truth is and what the facts are without having to sift through clearly biased semantics.

    • It’s not really underlying–it’s the central problem.

      Like I said earlier, I don’t really blame them so much for getting caught up in the scramble for ratings. In order to *send* reporters to Afghanistan the money has to come from somewhere. Time Warner actually pulled a pretty impressive hat trick by relegating most of that stuff (Nancy Grace and Joy Behar’s new show being prime examples of “that stuff”–and it’s no coincidence that HLN is Glenn Beck’s former home) to HLN, and dropping the original name Headline News. Amusingly they kept the same three letters, they just shied away from what it was initially supposed to stand for. This way, they can use what has primarily become an entertainment channel to rake in the advertising revenue from celebrity court cases and scandals and the “missing blonde of the week” (tm Anderson Cooper) and spend it on funding actual journalism, which they wisely air to low ratings on CNN to maintain their prestigious image. It’s an extremely smart move. They also have the advantage of longevity. They were the first cable news network, hence the name, so they had the time and the funding to create CNN International, and they have seriously large bureaus overseas–including a fantastic one in London that can rival the BBC.

      Lack of public consumption happened to unbiased reporting. Nobody’s watching it. That said, I do think with all the media choices we have now, there is a place for editorialism in news so long as it isn’t disguised as something else (Fox News and their “Fair and Balanced” tagline as opposed to MSNBC’s “The Place for Politics”). I’ll throw Glenn Beck a bone here because he does come right out and say “I’m not a journalist; I’m an opinion guy,” and I appreciate that. Rachel Maddow does the same. With Bill O’Reilly it’s like pulling teeth.

      CPJ, the BBC and *most* of what’s on CNN prove that this kind of classic reporting is still available, but it’s lack of demand that’s keeping it off the air. I want what you want, with *some* editorializing thrown in the mix because I am interested in educated people’s opinions, but most people don’t want that.

      I will say that before we get caught up in referring to the “good old days,” even then when there was what seemed like a demand for real news, domestic news still did significantly better than international news. Also, people did watch Walter Cronkite because he was an extraordinary talent (God, I miss that guy) but also because there weren’t many other options. We not only didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have cable news until Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980. So Mr. Cronkite and the people on NBC and ABC trying desperately to beat him were pretty much it for broadcast journalism, and if in 1965 people had had the same choices we have now, we might have been looking at the same numbers we are now.

      Great post, Shar, thanks! 🙂

  4. Hey, great blog…but I don’t understand how to add your site in my rss reader. Can you Help me, please 🙂

    • Sure, sweetheart–just go over to the left-hand side of the page, and look under my list of links where it says “Entries (RSS).” Click on that and you should see a drop-down menu, from which you can choose your RSS reader. Then click the button beneath that, which says “Subscribe Now.”

  5. […] Where's the Flag-Draped Coffin? « The Grotto Blog […]

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