Arlington Cemetery communicator pays price for transparency

July 11, 2008

According to the Dana Millbank column in Washington Post, Gina Gray got the boot for trying to increase media access to military funerals held at Arlington National Cemetery.

My first reaction is outrage–in this case against Robert Gates for, as the article suggests, acting just like Donald Rumsfeld. If all that there was to this story is that a PR person was not following a highly questionable procedure of restricting access to military funerals even when families allowed it, the outrage would maybe be appropriate. And outrage is clearly what the writer of this story wanted.

However, hold on, not so fast. Why do I think there is more to the story than this? Maybe it is because having personal experience with someone in high government circles who got the boot because of supposed PR bad judgment and seeing how poorly and inaccurately the real story was presented by none other than the same publication running this story. Maybe it is because the intention to grab attention and create outrage is so patently obvious. And maybe it is because reading about the interchange between Ms. Gray and her supervisor(s) leads me to believe there is a lot more to the story than is being told here.

The fact is, we know nothing about the facts based on this story. So intelligent readers should not come to any judgments relating to either Ms. Gray nor Robert Gates nor the evil supervisors involved. But that is not what the reporter intends. He has made a judgment and wants us to make one too. I suspect he judgment was made before he even found out about this whistleblower–the judment being that this administration is evil, wants to hide the dark side of the war and now this proves that Rumsfeld’s replacement is no better than he is. And Ms. Milbank’s dismissal proves his pre-judgment right.

This kind of reporting fits exactly into the “white hats” and “black hats” melodrama-styled reporting that I think is so damaging to reputations and above all the reputation of journalism itself. Is there any question who the white hats and black hats are? The reality is that reality is not so simple. Simplifying reality in this way makes for good story telling and good entertainment–which is exactly why it is done. But it does little to help inform the reader about what is really happening and why so we can make intelligent judgments.

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