Sunday, September 6, 2009

When editors lie

I've deliberately kept silence on this topic for a couple of days to let my blood pressure drop, and allow me to speak clearly, calmly and concisely. It's not been easy, given my visceral reaction of outrage and disbelief to the original story. Anyway, here goes.

I'm sure many of my readers are familiar with the controversy over the Associated Press's distribution of the photograph of a US Marine, wounded in combat in Afghanistan and dying of his injuries. The AP's 'official' story line, in its own article on the matter, is:

The AP distributed the picture despite personal pleas from [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and the dead Marine's family in a case that illustrated the difficult decisions in reporting on a conflict where Americans have seen relatively few images of fallen U.S. troops over eight years.

The picture, by AP photographer Julie Jacobson, showed Lance Cpl. Joshua "Bernie" Bernard, 21, lying on the ground with severe leg injuries after being struck by a grenade in an ambush on Aug. 14, his fellow Marines tending to him. Bernard later died of his wounds.

Gates wrote a strongly worded letter to AP President and CEO Tom Curley on Thursday, saying it was a matter of "judgment and common decency" not to use the photo. A Pentagon spokesman said Gates followed up with a phone call "begging" Curley not to use it.

After the photo was published Friday, the Pentagon released its communications with the AP.

John Daniszewski, AP senior managing editor, said he respected Gates' view but that sometimes the government and press have different perspectives.

"We thought that the image told a story of sacrifice; it told a story of bravery," Daniszewski said. "We felt that the picture told a story that people needed to see and be aware of."

Jacobson and reporter Alfred de Montesquiou were embedded with Bernard's unit and had followed them on patrol in Dahaneh, Afghanistan. She took her pictures from a distance using a long lens. The AP on Thursday ran a package of photos from that day and others that showed his life in uniform and his memorial service. The AP also distributed a detailed story, accompanied by the photographer's journal and an article explaining why the photo was used.

. . .

Gates wrote that use of the photo of a wounded Bernard would mark an "unconscionable departure" from the restraint that most journalists have shown in covering the military since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The AP did not change its decision.

"Why your organization would purposely defy the family's wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me," Gates wrote. "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 newspapers is appalling."

. . .

While the story was being written, an AP reporter visited the home of John and Sharon Bernard to learn more about their son. The couple was shown Jacobson's pictures, and requested that they not be used. In a later fact-checking phone call, John Bernard asked in stronger terms that the photos not be used, Daniszewski said.

Although the family was shown the pictures ahead of time as a courtesy, "we did not ask permission" to use them, Daniszewski said.

"There was no question that the photo had news value," he said. "But we also were very aware the family wished for the picture not to be seen. That created a difficult choice between our job to document the war and our respect for the suffering of the corporal's family."

During lengthy internal discussions, the family issue was the most difficult, he said. Ultimately, the AP concluded that "the photo itself is a part of the war we needed to cover and convey."

There's more at the link, including comments from some editors who published the picture.

I've seen the picture in question. I won't publish it on this blog, out of respect for Lance-Corporal Bernard's sacrifice, and the wishes of his family. However, I do have a few things to say to the editors of the Associated Press.

All of you have chosen to roll in the sewers of 'yellow journalism', abandoning any pretense of journalistic ethics or prudent judgment in favor of indulging your visceral opposition to the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq (an opposition made clear in many articles, statements, etc. from the Associated Press and its leadership). You've not so much ignored as ridden roughshod over the feelings of a dead Marine's family, and chosen filthy lucre over principle.

As for your disgustingly self-serving statement that "We thought that the image told a story of sacrifice; it told a story of bravery, . . . We felt that the picture told a story that people needed to see and be aware of" - I think we can all recognize BS when we see, hear and smell it. Your statement reeks of it. In all these years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, how many such images have you chosen to publish? None whatsoever. It's not as if such images haven't been available - they've been published elsewhere. So why publish this one? Why change your policy now, despite the pleas of Secretary Gates and the victim's family?

I think I know why. You, like all other news media, are finding circulation dropping, subscription income falling, as people turn in droves from 'conventional' news media to other sources of information (sources like this blog, for instance). You desperately want to demonstrate your relevance, your indispensability. By publishing this photograph, you hoped to assert your importance, stir up controversy, position yourselves as dedicated 'servants of the story' despite all pressures to the contrary.

Guess what? It didn't work. All you did was piss off the majority of the American public, who can see through your protestations and lies without difficulty. As I said, the fact that the AP has previously ignored such photographs is a telling admission in itself.

I also suspect that some of you desperately wanted to help take the heat off the Obama administration by focusing public attention elsewhere, so that the health-care debacle could slip off the front pages for a while. By publishing this photograph, you hoped to stir up sufficient controversy that it would have the desired effect. You'll deny that, of course: but like all the mainstream media, your sympathies in the political sphere are all too clear to see. I have no doubt that this was a major consideration in the decision-making of at least some of you, even if a largely unspoken one.

In the old days, right-minded people would call for you to be tarred and feathered, then run out of town on a rail. Regrettably, that's no longer a common practice. However, I have a small wish of my own for you, and for your staff. I hope that as many as possible of the AP staff involved in this disgusting abomination of journalism may find themselves in need of rescue from the sort of enemies who killed the late Lance-Corporal Bernard . . . and that the US Marines will not be there to save your sorry butts. That might remind you (albeit too late to profit from the lesson) that 'what goes around, comes around'. You've earned, and will richly deserve, whatever 'comes around' in your direction.

To the family of the late Lance-Corporal Bernard: my sincere apologies, brothers and sisters, for the way in which you've been treated in this matter, and your wishes ignored in the name of journalistic and political expediency. Rest assured that those of us who are combat veterans understand what motivated your son and brother and relative, and what he endured. We share his loss with you, and grieve with and for you. He was, and is, and will always be, our brother in arms. We shall not forget him.

Semper Fi, Marines!



Anonymous said...

I wish I was surprised that the obsolete media would act like this.


Cameron said...

The only problem with the second-to-last paragraph: As a former Marine, I can tell you that we'd still do everything we could to save them in spite of their behavior. But I don't expect most reporters to understand that.

Aggie said...

"We shall not forget him."

Right on!

God Bless Ya'll!

Aggie, Class of '70
An Anglican Firearms "Enthusiast" (ie: Gun Nut)

raven said...

What an appalling lack of simple decency.
In the old days, this was settled with a horsewhip and duel.
I wonder if the AP could be sued for pain and suffering?

Last Chance Safari Company said...

this speaks volumes for the practice of "embedded reporting" to be reviewed by big brass and to byecome a historical practice

Max Wilson said...

There is a special place in hell reserved for these self-absorbed bast**ds at the AP. It is hard to understand the mindset of people who can justify causing grief to a family by claiming virtue.