McGuire on Media

Tardy thoughts on the AP/Afghan soldier photo controversy

My former ethics students have been particularly engaged by the controversy over the Associated Press transmission of the photo of the soldier who died in Afghanistan. One student wrote: “I thought of you as I was reading about the controversial photo of the Marine that AP posted, even after they were repeatedly asked not to by family and others. I was wondering what you thought about this picture and whether you would have posted it.”

If you are like me, the phrase that defines my student’s note and screams out is, “even after they were repeatedly asked not to by family and others.” For so many people following this controversy, including Robert Gates, that family request should have stopped publication.  Gates was quoted as writing to AP,  “Why your organization would purposely 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 newspapers is appalling.”

This case is great evidence why journalistic publications in pursuit of news and bent on showing truth are never going to be friends with government, and even some of the public. It’s why business model discussions which might sacrifice real independence scare the heck out of me. I know there are people who feel the anger of this Associated Content commentator, but the contention that AP transmitted this photo in the pursuit of money displays such an incredible lack of understanding of how news works, it is staggering. 

I must admit I find the photo hard to read. It is not one of those photos that communicates in  one blink like the Napalm girl and the execution photo that arguably ended the Vietnam War. The photo is more subtle and requires definite work from the audience. That said it does communicate powerfully. I think we need to consider if its chief problem is it features a dying American. That may be the unfortunate difference here in the way we react. 

I was surprised at how many editors refused to run the photo.  I was particularly interested that neither of the Twin Cities papers ran with it. David Brauer was nicely balanced in his approach to the subject, but I found him uncharacteristically reserved in his judgement until his closing paragraph: “The wire-service treatment was not sensational, and served far larger civic interests. The public sees too few examples of the horror of war, and that lack of reality causes bigger problems down the road. Next time, at least one local news leader should be bolder.”

Brauer nailed it, politeness and all. As much as we want to be compassionate, news outlets cannot let the family make the call and the government request should not be decisive in any way. My personal opinion is this war has been sanitized far too much as it is. Wars continue until they disturb the public. The two wars our country is fighting now have not appalled enough people to end them.  News media hiding photos like this one is not in the interest of open and healthy dialogue. I was fascinated that in this story  the AP saved quotes from soldiers who argued the war has been sanitized until the end of the story. 

It is clearly not the news media’s responsibility to take a position on any war. On this day that a memorial service was held in New York City for the namesake of my journalism school, Walter Cronkite, it is important to remember Walter’s famous tag line and paraphrase it only slightly to make it an admonition to that we can live by when we make decisions like this one: “Tell it like it is.”