Publishing the Marine Photo: Remember the Words of Christ

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 8 months ago

As you know, there is a current professional scuffle going on over the issue of the AP decision to publish a photo of a Marine after he had been mortally wounded by an RPG, but prior to his death. I refuse to re-publish the photo, but if you care to view it you can find it at the links I provide. I must provide links in order to critique the incident.

First off, Jules Crittenden critiques the incident with a complex professional analysis of the practice of taking photos and then making decisions later as to whether publication is warranted and / or even appropriate.  By Jules reaches the conclusion that:

In this case, if the Pentagon wants to maintain its rule of not allowing identifiable casualty photos, given not only the overt rules violation but the AP’s decision to ignore the Bernard family’s repeated objections, the Pentagon probably ought to bounce both the photog and the AP, if only from the operation in question. Either that or ditch the rule. The AP has no moral leg to stand on. In this business, you make a deal, you stick with it, until some extraordinary circumstances arise that call the deal into question.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates attempted to protect the feelings of the family, by literally begging the AP not to publish the photo.

I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family. Why your organization would purposefully defy the family’s wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right – but judgment and common decency.

Tom Ricks asks what the hell the AP was thinking?

Bob Goldich, a friend of mine whose son served as a Marine in Iraq, observes that, “the photo was not of LCpl Bernard after he had died-it was while he was dying.  I think this is crucial.  The dead feel no pain.  But the dying do, and publishing the photo transmitted LCpl Bernard’s pain to his family.”

The AP stated that despite the objections, it went ahead and ran the photo because it “conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it.” I confess that I haven’t looked at the photo, and don’t want to. But if that was the AP’s purpose, what was so urgent that it couldn’t wait a few weeks or months, until the family had had a chance to mourn? I mean, these wars aren’t going away.

Today I am embarrassed for American journalism. As a former military reporter, I also am angry with the AP. They’ve committed the sin, but all of us in the media will pay for it. This one will haunt us for years. The Marines especially don’t forget. What a long way to come from Iwo Jima–that iconic photo of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi was taken by another AP photographer, Joe Rosenthal.

I’ll end with a plea to the AP: It is never too late to do the right thing and apologize.

The AP will never apologize if their moralistic defense is any indication of their plans.

In the current case, Mr. Lyon of the A.P. said there was a “healthy discussion” within the organization about distributing Ms. Jacobson’s photo. “The decision we came to was that — as a journalistic imperative — the need to tell this story overrode some of the other considerations,” he said. “Of course, we appreciate the anguish of the family of this marine. Of course, we appreciate the sacrifice that he made for his country. At the same time, there’s a compelling reason to show the real effects of this war. Sanitizing does everyone a disservice, in my view. Limiting casualty counts to numbers and names and nothing else; that’s a very incomplete picture of what’s going on.”

Journalistic imperative.  That means that if we really, really, really, really, really want to violate our contracts, we can.  One or two or even three really’s just won’t do it.  It requires more unction than that.

Gates begged on behalf of the family, and Tom Ricks asks why the AP couldn’t have waited a few more months.  Jules advises sticking to deals with the exception of extraordinary circumstances.  Gates, Crittenden and Ricks are all justifiably outraged at publication of the photo, but none go far enough.

The agreement embedded reporters sign is that casualties not be specifically identifiable personally or with regards to a unit.  The agreement stipulates that coverage may be conducted:

… as long as the service member’s identity and unit identification is protected from disclosure until OASD-PA [Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs] has officially released the name. Photography from a respectful distance or from angles at which a casualty cannot be identified is permissible.”

The last clause stands on its own.  Embedded reporters may not publish photos prior to notification of the family, and also may not publish them even after notification if the terms of the agreement are violated, i.e., if the casualty or the unit can be identified.  I’m not a lawyer, but (unfortunately) I spend some time in the code of federal regulations for certain obnoxious reasons, and this is simple and straight-forward.  This is not even moderatly difficult with respect to the legalities.

The rules are in place specifically to prevent the situation in which the family found themselves.  The DoD, thankfully, doesn’t leave it to journalists to judge the appropriateness of a photo.  This judgment is already made, and the rules follow the same pattern of priority as Gates’ plea.

Don’t get me wrong.  I support embedded reporters, and I support the idea that we should see scenes of war.  This is the national burden during times of war, but the burden is so far less than that borne by the families that the rules have been crafted to protect them rather than the journalists.

The AP took a responsibility upon itself that it doesn’t and cannot ever own under the terms of the agreement.  There is no extraordinary circumstance.  Period.  Waiting a few more months is not long enough.  Period.  There is outrage over the publication of the photo, and there should be.  The young Lance Corporal is obviously in shock, and his battle space pain is now his family’s pain thanks to a moralistic but immoral journalistic decision.  I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I had a copy of the Cubbison study on the battle of Wanat months ago (still hasn’t been released), and until his study had been “outed” I didn’t comment on the findings of this study.  Also, if I had taken this photo, I wouldn’t have published it.  I have even struggled in re-publishing certain already-published MSM photos on this blog.  In this instance, a blogger has more professional ethics than professional journalists.

The AP signed a contract in order to obtain the protection of the U.S. Marines.  They violated the terms of that contract, and thus they are liars – at least, the people who made the decision to release this photo.  It’s too late not to be liars, and it’s also too late not to have caused the emotional distress to the family that they did.  The damage has been done, and for it, not a single person knows a single iota of information about the campaign that they didn’t before the photo was published.  They blew their moral capital on a whim.  They threw away their soul.

In a country that has become accustomed to chuckling over what the meaning of ‘is’ is, it’s best to remember the words of Christ not only in life experiences, but preening, self-important, moralistic journalist round-tables as well: “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no,” Matthew 5:37.


From Andrew Lubin,

Have you no shame?

By your cavalier actions in publishing the photos of LCPL Joshua Bernard as he lay dying, you have not only jeopardized the work of legitimate combat journalists, but you have lowered the reputation of journalistic integrity to that of those paparazzi begging for a picture of Brittany or Lindsays’ beaver.

While in theory you are protecting the public’s “right to know”, in practicality you took a young man “in extremis” and used these unauthorized photos for your own commercial interests. Worse, after calling his father for permission to use these photos – which you admit he denied you – you used them regardless of his wishes.

This is not responsible journalism; this a reality journalism not even worthy of the supermarket tabloids.

Read the whole article.

  • JewishOdysseus

    What a great, touching analysis, Herschel–thank you!

    I think what we are constantly being reminded of, in stories like this, is that the modern lamestream media HAS NO SOUL. It is unthinkable for almost any journalist to write as Ernie Pyle did, or hell, even Jack Smith (Howard K’s son).

    They pretend it’s “professionalism,” but we know it is in fact PURE IDEOLOGY. They are quick to commend the bravery, daring, unselfishness, heroism [insert any other positive human attribute here] when describing the forces of AMERICA’S ENEMIES…[also Israel’s]…And wdn’t dream of showing an embarrassing or uncomfortable or undignified portrayal of our enemies.

    Ideology. Soulless ideology.

  • DesertPete45

    What should we expect from an organization populated by ladder climbers whose one big photo could catapult them to notoriety. I am more disgusted with our “leadership” in the form of Obama, Jones, Gates, Mullens and McChrystal who should be teacing sociology in a second rate university. Where are the generals who would resign/retire before ordering their subordinates to follow the untenable NATO promulgated ROE? I don’t expect McChrystal to throw in the towel because I believe he has been drinking the Obamaade but where are other generals under McChrystal and other senior officers of principle? What the hell are we doing there anyway? Holding hands and sipping tea with tribal hill bandit elders? All the Taliban have to do is hang out with civilians and they are home free? If we aren’t going to fight and kill the Taliban, civilians are killed in every war, then we MUST bring our forces home. God forbid that a twenty something year old Marine shots a civilian in a fire fight. Where are the statesmen in our govt who would tell Karzai that either you hold the Taliban responsible for civilian deaths or we are out of here and your hill bandit govt will collapse in 24 hrs?????

  • DesertPete45

    And, by the way, I salute LCpl Bernard!! He is America’s best and in my mind a true hero! I trust his family will be consoled through this difficult time. My son also is in a Marine rifle platoon in Helmand Province and I can’t believe how our young Marines are not getting, in my estimation, the support they deserve because of our concern about civilians and because we have a sociologist instead of a general in charge. Welcome home Lance Corporal Bernard, I salute you and the United States Marine Corps but not the spineless cretans in charge of our operations in Aghanistan. Either unfetter our forces or bring them home!!! We have become a joke to our enemy, our moves and philosophy are telegraphed to the world. That’s what we get with a Marxist running the show!!!!!!!

  • MarkA

    The AP personnel that made this decision are despicable vermin that are morally bankrupt and intellectually dishonest. Santiago Lyon (AP Director of Photography) is a degenerate. His comments in defense are perverse and insulting – there was a “healthy discussion”. What a sick, twisted f*ck! His defense of “What it does is show — in a very unequivocal and direct fashion — the real consequences of war” is a direct contraction to AP’s previous decisions regarding photos from 9/11. AP did not publish photos of the 9/11 victims that jumped from the WTC Towers. They did not want to show “in a very unequivocal and direct fashion — the real consequences of war”. AP sorely lacks what’s ingrained in our service men and women that they report about – integrity and honor.

    May LCpl Bernard’s family and friends receive God’s comfort and grace. May the AP personnel involved be tortured with moral consequences of their immoral decision.

  • Warbucks

    Except For Ending Slavery, Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, WAR has
    Never Solved Anything

  • MarkA

    “jcastillo57″ on YouTube (YT) has created a civil protest against the AP at

    jcastillo57 does a highly respectful and moving US Military Fallen Tribute each week on YouTube. I subscribe to it and highly recommend it. His channel is:

    Please follow the link above. jcastillo57 has started a campaign to have the image removed by YT users (success so far with 2 users). The info about the video describes this campaign.

    Please view the video and support his efforts. jcastillo57 treats our fallen warriors with the respect and dignity they deserve.

  • 1stsgt

    I am Lcpl Joshua Bernard’s Father. I deeply appreciate your intense concern over this immoral act and believe these folks are working without a functional conscience as described in Romans chapter 1. Having said that; I will make the same point here that I have now made repeatedly in interviews. We cannot let this ‘distraction’ change the important elements of the greater story and that is the implimentation of the new ROE. There aren’t 1000 Afghan lives that are worth a single Marine’s life. I say this because I am first an American and Marine – not a world citizen. We have a right and responsibility to export violence to defend these shores and our citizenry. Anything less and we will be judged ‘found wanting’ as the Bible describes those who fail to do what they know to be right. It is time for us to hold our elected officials accountable and renind them that they are Americans and for the attrocities against our Warriors that they are complicit in. Keep fighting the fight guys, here in your blog as I am with this small window of opportunity I have been given through the shed blood of my only son.

    John Bernard
    1stsgt USMC ret.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Media and was published September 6th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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