By: Joe Strupp
As President Bush fielded criticism last week for downplaying the growing number of casualties in Iraq, especially in the crash of a Chinook helicopter earlier this month that killed 16 soldiers, some local newspapers covering those military bases hardest hit in the tragedy followed his lead. In this view, Iraq-related deaths are all equally serious, and none should be given more attention than others. But other editors gave special emphasis to the Chinook tragedy.
“We are playing it the same as the other [Iraq deaths],” said Debbie Stevenson, military reporter at the Killeen (Texas) Daily Herald, the closest daily paper to Fort Hood, where three of the Chinook dead were based. “We don’t want to make it seem that these deaths are worse than any others.” Since the U.S. invasion last spring, 33 soldiers from Fort Hood have died in Iraq. “I did not rush out to do family reaction because it would be redundant,” she added.
But at The Lawton (Okla.) Constitution, which covers nearby Fort Sill where six of the Chinook fatalities were based, the incident is considered the paper’s biggest local story since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, according to City Editor Steve Metzer. “Our military reporter has been working a lot of overtime,” Metzer said. The story covered most of Page One for three days last week. “It has been a pretty stressful few days,” he added.
“This is the deadliest incident Fort Sill has had since at least Vietnam,” added military reporter Mitch Meador, a 20-year Constitution veteran. Local military officials, while remaining accessible, are steering reporters away from the death toll to more positive stories, he said. “They gave us a tour to show that training is still going on,” Meador said. “They have been trying to get our attention away from the crash.”
For The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo., which covers Fort Carson (home base to four soldiers who died in the crash), coverage also has increased. “It’s among the biggest displays we have had of Iraq events,” Managing Editor Jeff Thomas said.
At The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, Tenn., near Fort Campbell, Ky., editors were handling a similar tragedy — last Friday’s loss of a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq, which killed six members of Fort Campbell’s 101st Airborne Division. Executive Editor Richard Stevens said the crash marked the base’s deadliest day since the Iraq invasion began and prompted him to put two people on the story in addition to his lone military writer, who came in on her day off to cover the story. Still, since the base had already lost 23 men, the Black Hawk down crash would not cause a major jump in coverage beyond the initial reporting of the crash.
“It is not going to change a lot,” Stevens said. “We will not get any great revelations from this just because it has been a tough day.” He acknowledged, however, that the recent string of multiple-death tragedies in Iraq had increased tensions in the community, causing the paper to be even more careful in how it plays such stories. “There is a sense in the neighborhoods that are heavily military-connected that anytime there is an official-looking car driving down the street it is a heart-stopping moment,” he said.
The Bush administration also drew heat last week over the Pentagon’s ban on coverage of the arrival of dead bodies at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where all overseas American military casualties routinely enter the United States. Oddly, amid the national media outcry, the local Delaware newspapers seem unperturbed. The ban is something they have learned to live with, and they have other concerns. “We have trouble trying to interview someone at the base PX [Post Exchange, the store for soldiers on base],” said Andy West, managing editor of the Dover-based Delaware State News. Beth Miller, a reporter at The News Journal in Wilmington, said the closest she has gotten to seeing anything there is “a spokesman outside the base.”