BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week President Obama twice made good on his promise of greater transparency in the price of war. On Thursday morning he introduced a three-and-a-half-trillion-dollar budget that offered a stricter accounting of the dollars devoted to the fighting on two fronts.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For too long our budget has not told the whole truth about how precious tax dollars are spent. Large sums have been left off the books, including the true cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
BOB GARFIELD: Later Thursday afternoon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates held a press conference at the Pentagon to announce another shift in policy, also aimed at publicizing the cost, not in treasure but in blood.
SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: First, I would like to make an announcement regarding the Department’s policy toward media coverage of the return of our fallen heroes at Dover Air Force Base. As you know, the President asked me to review this policy. I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected, on an individual basis, by the families of the fallen.
BOB GARFIELD: Salon.com’s national correspondent Mark Benjamin has repeatedly covered the issue of the media and the returning fallen. He joins us once again. Mark, welcome back.
MARK BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Under the second President Bush, the policy prohibiting media coverage of the returning coffins was very strictly enforced, but the policy actually originated well before George W. Bush. Tell me about its origins.
MARK BENJAMIN: That’s correct. The original policy was actually written in 1991 by someone everyone’s heard of, Dick Cheney, who at that time was Secretary of Defense. He put that policy in place under the first Bush Administration, just on the eve of the first Gulf War, to prevent photographs of those caskets. And it’s never been lifted. However, President Clinton many times allowed photographers to go ahead. He basically made exceptions to that ban.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the stated reason, if I recall correctly, for the policy was respect for those who had made the ultimate sacrifice and for their survivors. Is there any evidence that we can take the two Bush Administrations’ words for that?
MARK BENJAMIN: They've also said that, you know, families would feel like they needed to travel across the country and be there, and we don't want people to have to feel like they have to do that. I don't think anybody believes it. And I also think it fits in with a whole series of steps that the Bush Administration took to try to keep the cost of war hidden. Early in the Bush Administration, Retired General Tommy Franks coined the term “the Dover effect,” and what he was referring to was he believed that there was only a certain number of images of flag-draped coffins that the American public was willing to see, willing to put up with, before support for a war begins to fade.
BOB GARFIELD: So the current administration is making an abrupt about-face on the policy, although the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was the secretary of defense in the latter part of the George W. Bush Administration, as well. What’s the stated reason for the reversal, and what do you make of it?
MARK BENJAMIN: The stated reason for the reversal is that the Obama Administration has made a big deal of government transparency on all levels. And, you know, it’s a symbolic thing, to a certain extent. I mean, you know, we're only allowing photographers to go in and take pictures of coffins, but I think it’s a big deal. I mean, I think people really felt like the Bush Administration was hiding the ball on a lot of things, and the cost of war was one very potent example.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, we can assume that the President is well motivated in changing this policy, for all the reasons that we've spoken of now, going back years on this subject. But you can also argue, at least from a political point of view, that this is a very cynical move of the President, spun as transparency but, in effect, a way to scare Americans into what many Republicans believe is a premature exit from Iraq, that, in effect, Obama is exploiting the Iraq and Afghanistan dead for his own political purposes.
MARK BENJAMIN: I don't think so. I think President Obama, as you probably know, just dispatched an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. Things in Afghanistan are very bad, and nobody thinks they're going to turn around very quickly. So, you know, it’s not like this president is not going to be on a wartime footing for a very long time, and soldiers are going to be coming home with those flags draped over those caskets. So that sort of takes away any motivation I think he would have to scare people out of supporting a war.
BOB GARFIELD: We've been assuming, for the purposes of this conversation, that it is categorically good for the American public to see images like this. But can you explain why exactly it is that the press should photograph these returning coffins and what benefit that confers on the American public?
MARK BENJAMIN: Well, I just think it’s our job to show the truth, the whole story, warts and all. I mean, think about it. When was the last time you saw an image of a dead American in Iraq? The other thing that’s happening, and this is part of the big story here, is that the smallest percentage of Americans is serving in the armed services in the history of the country. It’s less than one percent. So what we've got is we're not seeing it, we're not seeing these images of these dead bodies, we're not seeing images of coffins, and few of us even know people who have served in Iraq. It’s a very, very surreal situation where a small percentage of the country is shouldering an enormous burden. And that’s an important story.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mark. Well, as always, many thanks.
MARK BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me, Bob. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Benjamin is national correspondent for Salon.