Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why No One Cares that Media Corporations Are Going Out of Business

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the Associated Press had a bit of a disagreement on Friday. An AP photographer named Julie Jacobson, embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province - included a picture of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard while being treated by what turns out to be a mortal wounded from an RPG. The Associated Press decided to distribute the photo as part of its package for the story, at which time Secretary Gates sent the following letter to AP President and CEO Thomas Curley.

Mr. Curley:

Today I learned that the Associated Press plans to publish a graphic photograph of Lance Corporal Joshua M. Bernard taken shortly after he received mortal wounds. I understand that you have decided to do this over the objection of Lance Corporal Bernard's grieving father. Out of respect for his family's wishes, I ask you in the strongest of terms to reconsider your decision.

I do not make this request lightly. In one of my first public statements as Secretary of Defense, I stated that the media should not be treated as the enemy, and made it a point to thank journalists for revealing problems that need to be fixed - as was the case with Walter Reed. I have long been committed to more transparency with regard to media access - even when that means showing war's terrible human costs. Earlier this year I lifted the ban on images of the return of the fallen at Dover Air Force. I did so with one overriding thought in my mind: to give families the opportunity to honor their fallen however they saw fit and for the American people to understand, to see, and to appreciate the enormity of their sacrifice.

The American people understand that death is an awful and inescapable part of war - a fact driven home to me in a very personal way each time I write a condolence letter. Those of us who have not lost loved ones in a war can never know what it feels like. All we can do is pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and respect the wishes of their families. Publication of this image will do neither and will mark an unconscionable departure from the restraint that most journalists and publications have shown covering the military since September 11th.

I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard's death has caused is 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.

Robert Gates
This is an easy topic to avoid on this blog, but the Marines live on ID too and I can't let this one go. I agree with Gates 100%, because the AP cannot defend this decision. It would not be an issue at all if the Lance Corporal's family had given permission, but as soon as they denied that permission, the AP should not have included the photo. With the permission of the family, the story is the Marine and what the Marines are doing. Without the permission of the family, the story is no longer about the Marine, the AP turns the story into the AP.

The AP cannot possibly claim this is about getting the real story of the war out, because if the AP requires a picture of a dieing Marine in order to tell the story of a violent Afghanistan war, then the AP is making a damning statement describing just how ineffective the AP is as a news organization in covering the war.

In the end, the photograph was used not to honor Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard, nor the Marines fighting in Helmand Province, but to make a political statement about the war (the Huffington Post published the photo front page in the center of the homepage under the pretext of getting the truth out, suggesting the inability to comprehend these statistics as informative). There is no excuse for the actions of AP President and CEO Thomas Curley, because even when judging him by the ethical standards of his profession as listed by the Society of Professional Journalists, it is clear ethical standards were not applied to this decision.

From the Society of Professional Journalists website, under the Minimize Harm section of the ethics code:
  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
  • Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
  • Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
  • Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
  • Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
I don't want to see the bodies of Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, or Sailors on the front page of the newspapers, nor criminal victims, dead criminals, or people killed in war. It is absolutely clear that the picture included above showing Marine Corps Gen. Lawrence Nicholson (left) and 2nd MEB Sgt. Major Hooph (right) paying their respects to Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard during a memorial service at a forward operating base in Now Zad would have been more than sufficient, and very powerful, in highlighting the horror of the war in Afghanistan that comes from American Marines dieing. By using the image of a dieing Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard against the wishes of the family and in spite of the request by Secretary Gates, ethical standards were ignored and the AP changed the story into a 1st amendment rights issue, which predictably led to the picture being exploited as a symbol for political purposes.

It is a black eye for journalism, and this won't help other war reporters embedded with troops. It is a real shame too, because other than this picture, the work of Julie Jacobson is really quite good. Check out the other pictures associated with Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard here, because they tell the real story and in a remarkably compelling way without the image that has caused controversy. Americans should care that media organizations are going out of business, but when this is how the media makes a statement in public about itself, it is quite understandable why the media gets no sympathy from the average American. To put it simply, most Americans don't believe the media serves to protect them anymore, rather most Americans believe the media is always protecting the interests of people in power, or the media themselves. Whether true or not, that is the perception, and in many cases...particularly DC, the reality.

I am aware I did not link the image in question. I just don't feel it is appropriate.

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