Using deceit to get the truth

When there’s just no other way

When the military put the Desert Storm mortuary off limits, the most enterprising journalist since Nellie Bly went undercover — as a mortician!

By Jonathan Franklin

Jonathan Franklin is a freelance reporter living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in the Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Boston Globe and New York Times.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 9 (October 1991), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


“Got your embalming license, Franklin? You can start this afternoon,” the stocky mortician yelled to me while stitching an Army private’s crumbling skull. I was next door, watching a crack mortician team stuff a second mutilated body into a starched uniform.

Posing as a moonlighting mortician, I had entered the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, the sole Desert Storm casually-processing center, during the bloodiest part of the brief ground war. That, I believe, made me the only journalist to see the dead being returned from the Gulf.

As a professional journalist, deception is not a step I take lightly. But when the Pentagon cancelled all press access to Dover to prevent the American public from being demoralized by the sight of body bags and coffins, I found the ordinary rules of reporting unacceptable.

I was convinced that censors and press pools violated the honesty and openness implicit in a democratic relationship between citizens and their government. And the myth of the courageous correspondent was far from the embarrassing truth that, during Desert Storm, most American war correspondents got no closer to combat than the nearest fax machine. And no closer to the truth than swallowing the military’s version of reality.

Even so, sneaking into an Air Force base, whatever the guise, violates nearly every tenet of contemporary U.S. journalism. It wasn’t honest, it wasn’t objective and it wasn’t popular.

But given the military’s history of underestimating war casualties — and the U.S. media’s feeble protection of the right to a free press — I believe deception was defensible and necessary.

I didn’t pose as a mortician for the adventure, as critics have suggested. I did so to counteract the illusion of a bloodless Gulf War and because even a cursory study of history reveals that military organizations have no interest in acknowledging mishaps during wartime. The U.S. press and public have been duped about the number of dead during World War II, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama, when many more American troops died than official counts ever admitted.

My reporting from Panama after the 1989 invasion had uncovered just such a discrepancy in the number of American casualties. Morgue workers in Panama low-ranking Air Force personnel — had told me they’d scrubbed blood off at least 60 dead American soldiers. Yet the official Pentagon figure never rose above 27.

Those morgue workers and other soldiers at Howard AFB in Panama also told me that dozens of American paratroopers had accidentally been killed by so-called friendly fire. This embarrassing and tragic truth was, for the most part, officially written off as “training accidents,” a term that, predictably, popped up again during Desert Storm.

Spurred by these revelations, I decided to investigate the number of Gulf War casualties being processed at Dover. But, after a week of fruitless phone calls and requests for interviews, I decided I had to go undercover.

My plan had the support of editors at the San Francisco Bay Guardian and SPIN magazine. Although they made it clear that I was strictly on my own if I wound up in legal trouble, they shared my belief that readers needed a grisly description of the casualties to remind them that war is never glorious — and to counteract the sanitized version of events the military was so skillfully presenting.

My ruse was simple. It seemed logical that Dover would be hiring extra help. So for three weeks I studied Mortuary Management magazine, visited funeral homes and interviewed mortuary science professors. When the bombing began, I phoned Dover and asked for a job. On February 27, at the height of the ground war, I was invited to tour the mortuary as a prospective employee.

At the base security gate, I presented guards with my true name, address and social security number. Although I was offered a job that same day, I was never asked to show a mortician’s license.

It had taken three weeks of studying the mortician’s craft to slip through the triple levels of security at Dover. But after a few hours amidst the gore — I saw probably 20 corpses, some without hands, some without heads — I was ready to leave.

What had I learned? Morticians, hearse drivers and data clerks inside the mortuary all freely told me the truth about the war dead. While the Pentagon was setting the number of casualties at 55, one of my temporary colleagues told me she was computerizing data on about 200 dead soldiers. [Final U.S. toll: 399 dead]

“And whenever possible,” a secretary had whispered to me, “combat deaths are classified as ‘training accidents.’”

I wrote — in deliberately gruesome detail — about what I saw and heard. My articles were reprinted in alternative publications around the U.S. Yet not a single mainstream media organization ran the story or contacted me about the claim that combat deaths were being intentionally under-reported.

Why? Was the story not deemed newsworthy? Or was it considered tainted by my deception? Two years earlier, while working for the New York Times, I had learned that editors there emphatically reject all undercover reporting.

Posing as an anti-abortion Operation Rescue activist for a freelance Village Voice article, I had been arrested and jailed. While imprisoned, I obtained intimate details about the planning and philosophy of Operation Rescue activists. But the city editor warned me that even an off-duty Times man was sticking his head in the fire by using undercover reporting techniques.

I suspect, however, that even Times reporters and editors can visualize a government so hostile to open reporting that undercover techniques are both defensible and necessary. Shouldn’t the debate actually be about when such techniques are legitimate?

During Desert Storm, military leaders announced — and journalists reported — that the bombing of Baghdad was an unqualified success. And, according to opinion polls, the U.S. public widely agreed.

But where might public opinion have stood had the nation known that seven of every ten bombs may have missed their targets? Would the public have so enthusiastically supported the ground war if they’d known that U.S. troops were deliberately burying thousands of Iraqi soldiers alive?

It took seven months for the burying alive story to trickle out. Will it take years for the truth of what was done in their name to reach Americans? Or will the full story never emerge?

At the height of the war, few journalists challenged the military stranglehold on facts. I broke with convention because traditional journalistic etiquette was futile while generals stonewalled and censors worked overtime.

I’ve been criticized even by friends for going undercover. But I risked my credibility, and possibly my clean police record, by entering Dover because I believe journalism ought to be a risky business. Media organizations ought to risk contradicting military officials. Individual reporters ought to risk their life and freedom for crucial stories.

If more journalists had openly rejected war censorship and press pools, the American public could have made informed judgments about a war they financed and supported. That’s the way it’s supposed to work in a democracy.

And unless more of us openly challenge the military’s obfuscation policy, historians may one day describe Operation Desert Storm as a victory not against the Iraqi army, but against the poorly organized forces who call themselves the free press.