Great column from my Boston Herald colleague Jules Crittendon on the controversy surrounding the Associated Press’ decision to release a photo of a dying soldier. A former Iraq embed, he offers some cogent observations:
I believe photos of identifiable wounded that have run, not sure whether the photogs were embedded or not. Here’s the AP’s own article about the controversy. I’m not seeing anywhere whether the AP or Jacobson have been ejected from the embed or not. I’m an advocate of heavy embedding and wish the AP would do more of it. It has allowed news organization unprecendented access to combat operations and other realities our soldiers contend with, as well as greater access to the civilian populations than would otherwise be practical in remote combat areas, as amply demonstrated by committed freelance embeds such as Michael Yon. The public’s, the media’s and the politicans’ understanding of the Iraq war suffered when news organizations pulled back, particularly during initial stages of the Surge. Contrary to some of the criticism leveled over the past few years from various media commentators, it is not the media that has had to compromise its interests so much as the military, which has asked soldiers to surrender a great deal of privacy and expose themselves to scrutiny under the most difficult of circumstances, while units have been asked to risk lapses in operational security as well as intense scrutiny of all actions. This is unprecedented in military history, is a credit to goodwill and competence of the United States military, and six years on from the first Iraq invasion embeds, has proven highly successful for all involved, despite sporadic conflicts between the cooperating parties. Outside of some individual cases of overzealousness, the Pentagon has held up its end of the agreement and so has the media. All of us, the American people, have benefited.
All that said, I entirely understand the reaction of families and grunts who don’t want their dead photographed. And as a practical matter for a news organization, the closer to home the death is, the less likely it is to be published, though. For example, third world death is more like to run. American death, more of a problem. Death down the street, that can be a big problem.
NYT has a couple of the photos and a discussion here. The photo in question is not tight, not well composed, not great photographically as Jacobson notes. You can see the violence of the wound Bernard suffered, and it shows two Marines working on their comrade, intent on their business with a sort of matter of fact quality to their actions. From a short distance, there is a odd, detached sort of banality to it as there often is with death in war when you see it firsthand, perhaps in part because of the photographic shortcomings of the image mentioned above. What you can see, maybe the single strongest element of the image, is that Lance Cpl. Bernard appears to have moved beyond all of these concerns now. There appears to be something like peace on his face, though maybe it is shock or just the absence of anguish…
In this case, if the Pentagon wants to maintain its rule of not allowing identifiable casualty photos, given not only the overt rules violation but the AP’s decision to ignore the Bernard family’s repeated objections, the Pentagon probably ought to bounce both the photog and the AP, if only from the operation in question. Either that or ditch the rule. The AP has no moral leg to stand on. In this business, you make a deal, you stick with it, until some extraordinary circumstances arise that call the deal into question. The horrible combat death of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard and the resulting photograph do not represent an extraordinary circumstance within the context of the deal. It is an expected circumstance of the sort AP had agreed to terms on.