Last week, I condemned the Associated Press’ decision to release a grisly photograph of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard. The photograph depicts, in ghastly detail, the mortally wounded Marine just after his leg had been blown off in a Taliban ambush. The AP distributed the photo despite the repeated protests of Bernard’s family. I characterized the release of the picture as an unthinkably cruel assault on the Bernards, and I excoriated the AP for ignoring the most fundamental conventions of human decency. I stand by those convictions, but many readers wrote me with opposing viewpoints, and I feel I should address them.
A reader I’ll call “Bill” insisted that the First Amendment gave the AP the right to publish the photo, and he is unquestionably correct. The AP has every right to distribute the image, but having the right to do something doesn’t necessarily obligate one to do it. I am a firm believer in the adage, “The best way to preserve our rights is to exercise them.” But I also believe that the best way to exercise them is to do so judiciously, guided always by the Golden Rule.
I also heard from “Stephen” who insisted my statements were tantamount to a call for censorship. While I do find the sight of it personally disagreeable, my objection to the picture’s distribution was not provoked by its subject matter. If the Associated Press had an identical photograph of a mortally wounded serviceman, and if his family gave their blessing to its publication, I certainly wouldn’t have grounds to object. But the Bernards pleaded with the AP not to release the image. My suggestion is for Associated Press leadership to grow a conscience and then use it to police themselves, conducting their business responsibly and with decorum. A grieving family’s wishes should trump the AP’s dubious and self-interested defense of “the public’s right to know.”
Finally, “Gina” sent me an emotional e-mail, championing the AP for “recognizing that, by publishing the tragic picture, they may help end the fighting by engendering American opposition to the war.” I reject this notion on its premise, because journalists aren’t supposed to influence, they are supposed to inform. Real journalists must be dispassionate, and agendas should have no place in what they do.
But the main error in Gina’s argument is her assertion that undermining American support for the war would expedite an end to the hostilities. The eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks was just last week; have we forgotten who attacked whom? Even in the unlikely event that such photographs could hasten the withdrawal of American forces, this would serve merely to restrain our own troops. Because the initial attack on us was unprovoked, it seems unlikely that a “unilateral armistice” would pacify our enemies.
But here, in my view, is all one really needs to know: Jihadists are already using the image in question to fan the flames of anti-American hatred and violence. For example, I visited an Islamic extremist Web site last week, where the photograph had been posted. The headline gleefully declared: “Death of Coward Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard.” The caption reads, “In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 14, 2009, coward Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard is tended to by fellow coward U.S. Marines after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade during a firefight against the Taliban in the U.S.-occupied village of Dahaneh in the U.S. occupied Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Bernard was transported by helicopter to Camp Leatherneck where he later died of his wounds and stupidity. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)”
The Web site’s owner, Yousef al-Khattab, is a resident of New York City. He is a devotee of Sheik Abdullah Faisal and he uses the Web site to promote the Sheik’s teachings. Faisal is the Muslim hate preacher who was convicted seven years ago of inciting the murders of Americans, Jews, and Hindus in London. British authorities say Faisal exerted extraordinary influence over Germaine Lindsey, one of four terrorists responsible for the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. Fifty-six people were killed, 700 were injured.
Now that the photograph in question is serving as a propaganda tool and morale booster for domestic jihadists, can anyone still defend the actions of the Associated Press as somehow serving the public interest?
AP CEO Thomas A. Curley can. He’s still clinging to his absurd rationalization that the “news value” of the picture somehow outweighs both the anguish its release caused the Bernard family and the aid and comfort its distribution has given to anti-American jihadists.
Keep telling yourself that, Mr. Curley. Whatever gets you through the night, right?