Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another whistleblower silenced

Journalists and public relations people tend to lead parasitic professional lives. Journalist need PR people to get their information and PR people need journalists to get their messages out to the public. I have many friends in the PR business, but it is always an uneasy professional relationship. Journalists are supposed to report the most accurate version of the story while PR professionals are supposed to promote the version of the truth most favorable to their organization. Believe it or not, sometimes the PR version of the truth is actually an untruth.

This story is not about promoting untruths. This is a story about a government PR professional who believes in reporting the truth. Unsurprisingly from this administration, she got canned. This is also a story about the military's obsession with sanitizing the Iraq War by, among other things, hiding the costs of war by keeping the media away from soldiers' funerals. It took two years just to convince the Defense Department to release some photos of flag-draped coffins.

Keep in mind that there is a dead American in each one of those boxes. No rants about the politics of the war. These men and women fought and died for their country. Their military has actively engaged in keeping their sacrifices a secret. Military funerals are the nation's reminder that there is a war on and that war is terrible, not glorious.

Which brings us to Gina Gray, who has worked for many years as a military public affairs officer. Ms. Gray started a job with Arlington National Cemetery in April and was fired in late June. Dana Milbank reported her story for the Washington Post today.

Gray realized early in her tenure that the military was placing even more restrictions on media coverage of funerals. This is true even after the families had invited the media (which a majority do) to the funeral and thus broadcast their grief to the world.

According to Milbank's column, reporters were positioned where they could at least hear prayers and eulogies during the Rumsfeld era. Ten days into her new job, Gray found that the cemetery's deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, positioned the media some 50 yards from the funeral of a marine colonel who left behind two little girls. The location made it impossible to hear the service and the view was obstructed, so photographs were out of the question.

Milbank wrote a column on April 24 about the funeral. Almost as an aside, he noted:
Nor does the blocking of funeral coverage seem to be the work of overzealous bureaucrats. Gina Gray, Arlington's new public affairs director, pushed vigorously to allow the journalists more access to the service yesterday -- but she was apparently shot down by other cemetery officials.
Specifically, she pointed out that such treatment of the press was not in accordance with standing policy. Gray was subsequently treated poorly by co-workers and supervisors. She was demoted from public affairs director to public affairs officer June 9. She was fired at the end of June and contends that she would still be working there had she just gone along with Higginbotham and the superintendent John Metzler.

Gray also contends that Higginbotham contacted family members and urged them not to allow the media into the services for their fallen loved ones. Milbank confirmed the charge through an anonymous source at the cemetery. I am assuming that the source requested anonymity in order to keep his/her job.

Gray received her termination letter June 27. The letter accused her of being disrespectful to her supervisors and failing to act in an appropriate manner.

I cannot conclude better than Milbank, so here is his quote:
On June 27, Gray got her termination memo. (Gray's supervisor, Phyllis) White said Gray had "been disrespectful to me as your supervisor and failed to act in an inappropriate manner." Failed to act in an in appropriate manner? The termination notice was inadvertently revealing: Only at Arlington National Cemetery could it be considered a firing offense to act appropriately.

It should be noted that Milbank and the military obviously have differing opinions of appropriate behavior. I tend to agree with Milbank's assessment and applaud a PR professional for fighting for more access instead of less.

Also, the cemetery is now looking for its fourth PR director in three years.

h/t to Think Progress for this one.

Update: I replaced the final quote from Milbank's story. I missed the significance of the word "inappropriate." It was a typo, I hope. Otherwise, this is proof that these people have a culture of acting inappropriately. Thanks to this Dailykos diarist for pointing that out.

1 comment:

American Girl said...

When Harper took office he tried to stop the Canadian press from covering the coffins arriving from Afghanistan and the funerals. The press respectfully ignored him and within days covered the arrival of the latest military dead. Harper gave up on that plan pretty fast. I've always thought it originated in Washington which is why he shrugged his shoulders when the press gave him the finger. Too bad the American press isn't as ballsy. Maybe people would have caught on a lot sooner to the cost of Bush's war of choice.