Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More From Salon

The third article in Salon's series on "grave offenses" at Arlington National Cemetery is out today. I've been unimpressed by the series so far, but the newest installment does contain some actual examples, rather than vague allegations.

In 2003, Arlington workers dug into a plot that they thought was empty, only to find an unexpected casket there. The remains are still unidentified. The situation is unacceptable, but, as far as anyone knows, it is an isolated incident.

I don't mean to defend Arlington's director — he sounds like a tyrant — but I'm still not convinced that this constitutes the "malfeasance" that Salon alleges. The fact that the investigation has found only one screw up at such a gigantic, multi-century cemetery speaks to the generally high level of competence and care at Arlington. As the cemetery spokeswoman quoted in the article notes, the situation reemphasizes the need to update the records system, which is an ongoing project.

Of course, all efforts should be made to identify this unknown soldier. If they cannot identify him/her, he/she should be honored by burial in the Tomb of the Unknowns. There's an open spot.

I wonder how this story would have been different if Mark Benjamin and Salon had approached it in a less sensational, less confrontational way. Instead of accusing Arlington of "malfeasance" and punning about "grave offenses," Benjamin could have used the story of this newly discovered unknown soldier to explore Arlington's personnel troubles, budget limitations, and grave decoration policies. Instead, he went in guns blazing, screaming scandal. Instead of producing a well-written, insightful investigative report (like this one), he created a breathless, sensational piece. Piggybacking off the truly horrifying situation at Burr Oak is insensitive and irresponsible.

Salon is one of the organizations trying to prove that new media can do investigative journalism just as effectively as traditional newspapers. This series is not helping to make that case.

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