September 10th, 2009 by Demophilus
One wish granted, one wish denied. It is a tale of two wishes: the wishes of a humble family in a time of grief, and the wishes of a powerful news giant in a time of crisis. The global news organization, the Associated Press (AP), was put in the position of making a choice between those wishes twice within the past week. In one case, it chose to honor the wish, in the other, it did not. News organizations are called upon to exercise impartiality in the execution of respectable news coverage. One of the hallmarks of impartiality is consistency. Why the AP chose differently in these two cases is at best a matter of simple inconsistency, and at worst a choice to inequitably apply a standard rendered disingenuous by the ultimate outcome of these two decisions. The last moments of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard were recorded in a frozen moment in time by the photograph of embedded journalist/photographer Julie Jacobsen. It seems to be in dispute whether Ms. Jacobsen displayed the utmost respect for Lance Corporal Bernard and his fellow Marines, or whether she merely seized an opportunity to make a name for herself. In her comments and account of the events surrounding his fatal wounding by a Taliban RPG round in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, she has expressed conflicted feelings of wanting to help and recognizing that such an attempt to render aid most likely would get in the way of those best in a position to help. She said her purpose as a journalist was to document the events she was present for, to stamp an indelible record of one man’s ultimate sacrifice for his country. Regardless, the decision to publish the photo in question was not her decision, but that of AP’s editorial staff. It ignited a firestorm of criticism. We have just become aware of the rescue of a New York Times reporter, Stephen Farrell, captured by the Taliban with his Afghan interpreter and saved by the daring actions of coalition forces, which cost the life of a British commando. The Times kept the kidnappings quiet out of concern for the man's safety, and other media outlets, including The Associated Press, did not report the abductions following a request from The Times. The withholding of information regarding hostages during their period of activity is not uncommon, as the release of such information can jeopardize the lives of the hostages involved, as well as the likelihood of success of rescue attempts. Decisions like this are seldom questioned and rarely would prompt any waves of criticism. AP posted on its Web site an explanation for the decision to release the photo of Lance Corporal Bernard’s last moments. Bernard's father, John, after seeing the image of his mortally wounded son said he opposed its publication, calling it disrespectful to his son's memory. John Bernard further reiterated his viewpoint in a telephone call to the AP on Wednesday. Santiago Lyon, director of photography for AP, stated "AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is…” AP further stated that the photo was representative of “[Bernard’s] sacrifice to his country”. Two parties requested that information (in word or in image) be withheld, The New York Times, and a family wracked with grief over the death of a son. One request was granted, the other ignored or discounted. Where is the consistency? Are the needs of a newspaper more important to AP than the needs of a grieving family? Are the desires of a major news organization more inherently weighty? What is the historical context of decisions such as these? As stated before, during hostage situations it is not uncommon (though certainly not the only choice ever selected) to withhold details. Likely, this can be construed as a positive choice that contributed to the overall success of the rescue operation. With regard to the needs of grieving families over the death of their loved ones at war and the depiction of the aftermath of such, we can draw a very recent parallel. The military recently changed a previous policy at Dover Air Force Base regarding the photographic recording of incoming American casualties. Earlier policy had dictated that the depiction of the American fallen intruded upon the privacy of the families of these service-members and therefore would be forbidden. This policy was changed to allow for more open documentation of the costs of war. However, owing to the sensitive nature of grief, an important restriction was imposed. The press is free to photograph the incoming fallen at Dover now, and even to publish those photos. However, this can only be done with the express permission of the family of the deceased service-member. The First Amendment need to freely document the news of the world is upheld while protecting the rights of the families to grieve in whatever manner they are most comfortable with. Grief is an innately personal and private experience. Not everyone reacts the same to life-altering events such as the loss of a son, daughter, husband or wife. While some may accept or even encourage a public record of their family’s loss as an important reminder of the high cost of freedom, for others this is too much to bear, and they must hold their loved ones close, too close to share with the outside world. Neither is an improper response, and the regulations and safeguards put in place provide a solution protecting both, which is worthy of Solomon himself. Therein lies the lesson that AP could have applied in the case of Joshua Bernard. Not only did family members not express permission to publish the photo, they explicitly stated that such an act would be too much to bear. They stated in unequivocal terms that to publish such photos would not respect the sacrifices of their son, but rather be disrespectful to his memory. Yet AP, in its wisdom decided that it was the better arbiter of respect for the fallen Marine, disregarded the express wishes of his family, and published a picture so that the public could gain a more accurate picture of the real costs of war. Is the cost of war so nebulous that the people of the world need reminding that men and women die during conflict? Does this one photo of a fallen Marine in his last agony somehow express a fundamental truth necessary to understanding the war in Afghanistan? Are we more enlightened to see this photo and “… [See] the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is…”? Could this have been shown through another photo, previous or future, which showed a dying soldier, yet bore the blessings of the bereaved family? I do not discount the merits of war photography; the images of such artists as Matthew Brady, Margaret Bourke-White, and Robert Capa have long immortalized the terror and sacrifice that is war. Stark images of suffering during conflict underline all the more the sacrifices made by our nation’s veterans. I do not discount the importance of documenting the world, the need for reporting to be willing to illuminate truth, to be honest and forthright and unflinching from hard realities that must be faced. I merely see no purpose that could have been advanced by the release of this one photograph over the wishes of the family. I see no great Truth that has been revealed to us at the cost of trampling upon these people in their terrible time of need. I wish that AP could have been more consistent in its respect for the parties involved. I wish that the needs of the grieving family of one of our nation’s brave military members had been afforded as much gravity as the needs of The New York Times. I wish that families did not have to be confronted with hard choices about the memory of their fallen children. I wish a lot of things. Editors at The Associated Press do not have to honor those wishes; they have shown quite clearly that they may pick and choose whose wishes they honor at their journalistic whim.
Posted in the burner | 47 comments