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.