Sunday, December 26, 2004

Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know

A Belmont Club reader sent a link to the Associated Press Photo Managers site which contains guidance to editors on When to Run a Chilling Photo. The author, Naomi Halperin, begins by describing her reaction to a schoolteacher who balked at showing photographs of mutilated Americans hanging from the Fallujah bridge to her class.

One image, seen in many newspapers including The Morning Call, appeared when violence erupted in Fallujah and four American contractors were killed. ... The single letter that stands out in my mind was from a high school teacher who routinely brought the newspaper to her classroom to share with her students. She wrote: "After viewing the photo of the American soldiers hanging on the bridge in Iraq, I will no longer be bringing my paper to school to use for the classroom. The students were very upset and they wanted to know the names of the soldiers because they have relatives serving in our military. They wanted to know why the newspaper would show our soldiers' charred bodies hanging there in such disrespect. ...

My first reaction was to consider that some of her students she wanted to protect were the very age of many of the soldiers fighting in Iraq. I answered her letter the next day: "... Running a photo that we know will disturb folks is never an easy decision. ... After careful consideration we decided not to hide the truth, as brutal as it was. The image, very reminiscent of the dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Somalia, was too important for the editors here at The Morning Call to ignore. It is a powerful photo. I suspect this particular picture will prove to be a historical flashpoint image that helps define the Iraqi conflict and who we are as a people. Perhaps in the future, you as an educator might be compelled to look at these tragic events as an opportunity for discussion. By keeping the paper from your students, you close the only window of the world for a lot of kids so I hope you will reconsider bringing your paper to the classroom. I know that you and I will probably never agree on this subject but I respect your views and will take it to heart."

Ms. Halperin, I think it is fair to say, is arguing it is the duty of editors to convey the truth, however painful; and that it was in the long-term interest of the teacher's students to have their eyes opened to the world as it is. But because the quest for the truth is often an adversarial process, it is not surprising to find accounts of the same event which cast a wholly different construction on things. Powerline printed an angry letter from reader Kevin O'Brien who charged that the AP behaved unethically in Fallujah and that their account of events is poisoned as a consequence.

AFP, AP and AP TV had advance notice of the murders of contractors in Fallujah last spring, so that they could position themselves on scene. ... Apparently the reporters were tipped to go to a specific location. They were not told exactly what would take place, but they knew it was going to be a terrorist action of some type. For security reasons, the terrorists give the reporters very little notice -- just enough to get there, if everything goes right. They were told exactly what street corner to be on, where they would be expected by and under the protection of the terrorists. ("If you're anywhere else, we can't guarantee your safety.") ... After the contractors were dead and their bodies looted, the reporters stayed and encouraged the mob that had gathered to mutilate the bodies. I am told by our Arabic speakers that they can be heard egging the youths on during the video of the mutilations. "Go ahead, cut him up. What are you afraid of?"

I have no idea if these charges are true; Mr. O'Brien's allegations would surely outrage many journalists working for the Associated Press. But why, in principle, should Mr. O'Brien's allegations be withheld from students where the photos of contractors should not? All of the arguments advanced by Ms. Halperin apply to the Powerline article as well. The obvious response would be that Mr. O'Brien's allegations are 'false' while the the picture of the contractors hanging like meat from the bridge is 'true', though a moment's reflection will show that one does not disprove the other. Yet as Ms. Halperin is at pains to point out, the real truth is not contained in the actual photograph but in is its larger signification. "The image, very reminiscent of the dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Somalia, was too important for the editors here at The Morning Call to ignore. It is a powerful photo. I suspect this particular picture will prove to be a historical flashpoint image that helps define the Iraqi conflict and who we are as a people." One could argue that O'Brien is asking equally fundamental questions about who you trust to convey the news. Ultimately, the case for preferring the AP's account and dismissing Mr. O' Brien's rests upon an appeal to the authority of the AP brand name. It rests on trust. The public knows the AP and doesn't know Mr. O'Brien, hence it is the AP's account that represents the canon.

Yet ironically we do know Mr. O'Brien, who at least has a name, while we will probably never know the identity of the "brave Iraqi" photographer who captured the execution of Iraqi election worker on Haifa Street. Jack Stokes, the Associated Press director of media relations explained how that photographer was recruited.

Insurgents want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let Iraqi photographers take their pictures. It's important to note, though, that the photographers are not "embedded" with the insurgents. They do not have to swear allegiance or otherwise join up philosophically with them just to take their pictures.

Because of the dangers inherent in this situation the AP believed photographer's the identity had to be protected. Salon quotes sources as saying "The photographer, whose identity the AP is withholding due to safety concerns, was likely 'tipped off to a demonstration that was supposed to take place on Haifa Street' said the AP source, who was not at liberty to comment by name". A Belmont Club reader wonders who the photographer is being protected from since "he was allowed to not only photograph the executions, but also live to deliver them to be published" so "the terrorists already know who he is". Since they knew him well enough to send him the "tip" in the first place the reader's question seems perfectly reasonable.

And deserving of an answer. The Associated Press says it encourages questioning and wants the public to know the truth. In a press release dated December 14, 2004, AP CEO Tom Curley warned of the "trend toward more secrecy" and promised to resist it.

Curley and other media leaders have announced a 2005 initiative called "Sunshine Sunday-Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know" to foster a public dialogue on the importance of maintaining access to government information. ... "We ourselves need to be out there fighting for access," Curley said. ... Founded in 1848, The Associated Press is the world's oldest and largest newsgathering organization, providing content to more than 15,000 news outlets with a daily reach of 1 billion people around the world. Its multimedia services are distributed by satellite and the Internet to more than 120 nations.

The public right to classified information when the larger interest compels its release has been widely debated. It seems clear that the same standard should apply, in certain circumstances, to information about the way the news is obtained and prepared. Let the Sunshine in.


Glenn Reynolds links to Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh who takes up the Haifa Street murders.

The blogoshere is currently discussing the issue of how an Associated Press photographer managed to stand in the middle of one of Iraq's (and probably the world's) most dangerous roads and shot a picture after another of a ruthless murder in the middle of the day. ... The case at hand has to do with the brutal killing of 2 Iraqi heroes whose only mistake was trying to organize an election in their country. This is a moral case and we, the friends of Iraq and of the troops serving there, should not let this incident pass unnoticed.

Follow the link to read the rest.