David Zucchino, who landed the controversial Los Angeles Times scoop that includes gory photos of Army soldiers showing off the severed limbs of Afghan suicide bombers, says that yesterday he and his editors took on a lot of “incoming.” Meaning nasty comments, mainly from folks associated in one way or another with the military. The comments, says Zucchino, hammered the Times for placing troops in danger, as the Pentagon warned the paper before it printed the piece.
Here’s how Zucchino chooses to rebut that particular line of argument:
In our case we’ve covered the Afghanistan war for more than ten years. I’ve made 14 trips there, and we have written about the sacrifices of the troops and their struggles and their accomplishment. We’ve covered the entire conflict. I believe the American public and our readers need to know everything about the Afghanistan mission.
A little more in that vein from Zucchino: “To me, the criticism seems to be implying that this is the only story we’ve done about Afghanistan or would do, and that we’d do the most sensationalistic story.” The archives, he suggests, tell a much different tale.
The Pentagon asked the Los Angeles Times to withhold the photos from publication on the grounds that putting them out there would subject the troops to reprisals. “Our editor was in a lot of conversations with the Pentagon,” says Zucchino, 60, who has been with the paper since Sept. 11, 2001 (pure coincidence). “It was pressure,” he said when asked how about the vehemence of miliatary brass. “They said it was a security issue and not an issue of protecting the image of the military.”
Given his familiarity with the conflict, Zucchino was in a fair position to evaluate those claims. “Just from my experience,” says Zucchino, “the one thing [Afghan citizens] respond to is religious sensibilities.” He cited the killings that occurred earlier this year after the U.S. military mistakenly burned Korans. A U.S. military scandal of non-religious implications also took place earlier this year, when video emerged of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of fallen Afghans. “I don’t recall there was much reaction to that,” says Zucchino.
Another consideration: There is a war going on in Afghanistan. That means U.S. troops are at risk no matter what. Zucchino: “I’m not sure the insurgents need any more motivation to attack U.S. forces. . . . The insurgents are trying every single day to take them out.”
The severed-limb piece is an old-fashioned triumph of a newspaper investing in important coverage. The tip from an anonymous Army soldier came to Zucchino, he says, because the soldier had read his work in the Los Angeles Times. Zucchino and his editors were familiar enough with the war to be able to evaluate for themselves the Pentagon’s entreaties to refrain from publishing the photos. And the paper’s Afghanistan archive gave it the standing to defy the government.