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Media lose interest in war caskets

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Remember the controversy over the Pentagon policy of not allowing the press to take pictures of the flag-draped caskets of American war dead as they arrived in the United States? Critics accused President George W. Bush of trying to hide the terrible human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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"These young men and women are heroes," Vice President Joseph Biden said in 2004, when he was senator from Delaware. "The idea that they are essentially snuck back into the country under the cover of night so no one can see that their casket has arrived, I just think is wrong."

In April of this year, the Obama administration lifted the press ban, which had been in place since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Media outlets rushed to cover the first arrival of a fallen U.S. serviceman, and many photographers came back for the second arrival, and then the third.

But after that, the impassioned advocates of showing the true human cost of war grew tired of the story. Fewer and fewer photographers showed up.

"It's really fallen off," says Lt. Joe Winter, spokesman for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where all war dead are received. "The flurry of interest has subsided."

That's an understatement. When the casket bearing Air Force Tech. Sgt. Phillip Myers of Hopewell, Va., arrived at Dover the night of April 5 -- the first arrival in which press coverage was allowed -- there were representatives of 35 media outlets on hand to cover the story. Two days later, when the body of Army Spc. Israel Candelaria Mejias of San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, arrived, 17 media outlets were there. (All the figures here were provided by the Mortuary Affairs Operations Center.) On subsequent days in April, there were nearly a dozen press organizations on hand to cover arrivals, but by the end of the month, that number had dwindled to a handful.

Fast-forward to September. On Sept. 2, when the casket bearing the body of Marine Lance Cpl. David Hall of Elyria, Ohio, arrived at Dover, there was just one news outlet -- the Associated Press -- there to record it. The situation was pretty much the same when caskets arrived on Sept. 5, Sept. 9, Sept. 10, Sept. 12, Sept. 13, Sept. 14, Sept. 16, Sept. 22, Sept. 23 and Sept. 26. There was no television coverage at all last month.

The media can cover arrivals only when the family gives its permission. In all the examples above, the families approved, which is more often than not the case; since the policy was changed, 60 percent of families have said yes to full media coverage.

But these days, the press hordes that once descended on Dover are gone, and there's usually only one organization on hand. The Associated Press, which supplies photos to 1,500 U.S. newspapers and 4,000 Web sites, has had a photographer at every arrival for which permission was granted.

"It's our belief that this is important, that surely somewhere there is a paper, an audience, a readership, a family and a community for whom this homecoming is indeed news," says Paul Colford, director of media relations for the AP. "It's been agreed internally that this is a responsibility for the AP to be there each and every time it is welcome."

Colford says the AP has a photographer who lives within driving distance of Dover and is able to make it to the arrivals, no matter what time of day or night. As for the network news, it's not so simple; a night arrival means overtime pay for a union camera crew. And then there's the question of convenience.

"It seems that ... during the day, we get a higher level of media to come down," says Lt. Winter. "But a majority of our transfers occur in the early evening and overnight."

Forty American troops were killed in Afghanistan in September. For all of 2009, the number is 239 (at press time) -- more than any other single year and more than died in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 combined.

With casualties mounting, the debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan is sharp and heated. The number of arrivals at Dover is increasing. But the journalists who once clamored to show the true human cost of war are nowhere to be found.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

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