Media Access to Funerals Allegedly Discouraged

Army Times

August 4, 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 Lt. Col. 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.

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 and his deputy, Phyllis White, who are black, alleging a hostile work environment, as well as race and gender discrimination.

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