Before my lights go out, I have to post about something that I’ve been following for a little while.
About a month ago, US Marine LCpl. Joshua Bernard was fighting the Taliban in the Helmand province of Afghanistan when he was mortally wounded. AP photographer Julie Jacobson was embedded with the Marine unit during the firefight that claimed Bernard’s life, and as he lay dying, with his fellow Marines trying desperately to save his life, Jacobson snapped a photo. It likely isn’t the first time a photographer has taken such a picture. This time, however, the AP decided to run the photo.
They tried to excuse themselves by bragging that they waited until Bernard had been laid to rest to publicize the photo. What they didn’t reveal, though, was that the decision to run the image of the dying Marine was made despite the wishes of the Bernard family. Let’s forget that Defense Secretary Gates admonished AP head Tom Curley “in the strongest language I can” not to post the image for the world to see. To me, that is almost a side issue. Bernard’s family, those who had the highest rights to what they had experienced in losing their son, explicitly told the AP that they did not want the image to be published.
In the end, AP senior managing editor John Danisczewski said, “We understand Mr. Bernard’s anguish. We believe this image is part of the history of this war. The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice.” Jacobson, the photographer, excused herself from wrongdoing with statements typical of her profession–that the journalists are there to record the realities of war, this is part of that reality, and the people need to know. Oh, and it was also important for her to point out that when she allowed Bernard’s fellow Marines to look at her photos of the firefight, none of them showed outward anger: “none of them complained or grew angry about it. They understood that it was what it was. They understand, despite that he was their friend, it was the reality of things.” She said that “to ignore a moment like that simply would have been wrong.”
Let’s talk about what’s wrong. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Technically, they have the right to publish whatever they want as long as they’re not giving away classified information or posting the images before the wounded’s family has been notified. But does the fact that they have the right to mean that they should? When they ask the family for permission to run the photos and the family unequivocally says NO, what on Earth could possess these people to think themselves so much better, so much more enlightened, to believe that they had a moral imperative to go against said family’s wishes and let the whole world see the last moments of a hero’s life?
Greg Mitchell, writing for the Huffington Post, had the tacit nerve to talk disdainfully about the press’ previous refusal to “carry graphic images of the true cost of our wars, to Americans, in Iraq and Afghanistan — fatally wounded U.S. soldiers and Marines.” Since when does the freedom of the press give you or anyone else the right to exploit these incidents for your own political purposes? It may give you the ability, but what makes you think it’s okay? Because you have some kind of moral duty to let people know what the realities of war are?
If you are so interested in showing the realities of war, then be more balanced. Show the reality of allowing a despot to remain in control. Show more pictures of the mass graves uncovered during the Iraq war, graves containing hundreds–sometimes thousands–of Saddam’s victims. Show pictures of the women, homosexuals and children executed by the Taliban for crimes such as being in public without a male relative escort…or even for the crime of being a rape victim. Show the pictures you’ve refused thus far to show of those executions because, as Kathleen Carroll said, “we don’t distribute content that is known to be offensive, with rare exceptions.”
If you’re so interested in showing the realities of all that’s wrong with our world, then why not focus on issues closer to home? Between 15,000 and 16,000 will have died in alcohol-related MVA’s by the end of 2009. Between 30,000 and 35,000 will have died by suicide, with most of the completed suicides involving the individuals either shooting or hanging themselves. Guess what the leading cause of accidental death is for children? Drowning. In what I do for a living, I have seen these and many other major issues that plague our society today tear lives apart. The most gut-wrenching sound I have ever heard is not the crunch of metal and glass, not the last gurgling breaths of a gangbanger riddled with bullets and blood pouring from his mouth, nor the sound of dismembered body parts being pulled from the pavement.
It is the anguished cry of a mother or father who has just been told that their child is dead.
There is nothing in this world that can bring me to the brink of losing my calm and cool the way that sound can. The mother who woke to the sound of her only son shooting himself, the father who searched for his youngest son only to find him face-down in the murky backyard pool, and the parents who had to be notified at an ungodly hour that their teenaged daughter had been killed by a drunk driver will remain with me forever. I cannot fathom trying to show that couple a picture of their daughter after the collision that took her life. Because I have experienced their pain, I cannot imagine what manner of extreme greed could possibly drive any reporter to show that sort of thing to any parent–and then ask to publicize it.
If you holier-than-thou pricks are so concerned with putting the realities of what’s wrong with our world out there for everyone to see, then start with the wars in our own neighborhoods. Let’s see you post pictures of the scores of good people being killed every day by things we have begun to ignore. Let’s see you talk about that with the same zeal with which you ardently preach about the realities of war.
Until you are capable of doing that, tell yourself whatever the hell you want if it’ll help you sleep better…but spare us the sanctimony. What you did to the Bernards was wrong, plain and simple, and no amount of hiding behind your First Amendment rights will absolve you of that. This wasn’t about right and wrong for you. It was about what would pull in the readers, and with them the money. You’re a brood of jackals waiting to feed on the wounded.
I hope you choke on it.