Controversy over AP picture of mortally wounded Marine

Posted on September 6, 2009

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Controversy has been swirling the last few days over the Associated Press’ decision to publish a photo depicting Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard mortally wounded in combat. The picture shows the massive leg injuries of Lance Cpl. Bernard, sustained during an ambush grenade attack, to which Bernard later succumbed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had asked the AP to forgo publishing the picture, and expressed his disappointment in its release. The AP defended its actions, with senior managing editor John Daniszewski commenting, “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.”

The case recalls the uproar of a few years ago when the AP published photos of the flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers. I don’t think a direct comparison can be made – in the previous case, the images were nothing so disturbing as boxes draped with Old Glory, and I think the AP was well within the bounds of decency to publish those. In this instance, we’re talking about an image of a soldier who has just had his legs practically blown off. The subject matter of the two kinds of photos are completely different.

I can understand a greater societal need to keep war from being overly sanitized and turned into a video game. And I can sympathize with a desire to associate an image with the sometimes faceless soldiers serving, fighting, and dying in America in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are two problems, though: I don’t think for a second the AP had these intentions at heart, and the publication goes against the expressed strong wishes of the family of Lance Cpl. Bernard.

It’s my opinion that the AP didn’t use the image for any purpose beyond voyeurism and sensationalism. The photo itself is a little blurry, and I find suspicious the claim that this particular photo was so newsworthy it demanded release. I don’t believe the AP finds the controversy all that distracting, as it’s given them an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for their journalistic integrity.

It’s got nothing to do with politics or an agenda, and everything to do with the simple catchphrase in the news business: “If it bleeds, it leads.” I could care less if Sec. Gates was ignored. What does matter to me is that the parents of the dead Marine told the AP twice they didn’t want the photo of their mortally wounded son run in newspapers and websites across the world. Indeed, Daniszewski admitted the AP didn’t seek permission for the photo’s release.

Forget the politics of left and right. This is a failure of fundamental human decency. There are numerous other images of the harsh realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which by no means should be forgotten or whitewashed. But this particular photo wasn’t so newsworthy that it deserved publication over the objections of a fallen soldier’s family.

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Posted in: News