By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates criticized the Associated Press on Friday for what he called an "appalling" lack of compassion for deciding to distribute a photograph of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan over the objections of the Marine's father.
The AP defended its decision, saying in an article that it released the photo to convey "the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it."
The photograph shows Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard of New Portland, Maine, shortly after he was severely wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade during a Taliban ambush in southern Helmand province on Aug. 14. Two Marines are bending over Bernard, whose severed leg is bleeding profusely and whose face bears an expression of shock, with his mouth and eyes wide open. Bernard was evacuated to a hospital but died that day, according to the AP.
The controversy goes to the heart of one of the most sensitive realms of war coverage: the public portrayal of the wounded and the dead. It raises profound ethical questions about how to balance the privacy of a grieving family with a journalistic obligation to inform the public fully about the war.
The distribution of the photograph did not appear to violate any U.S. military rule on the documentation of war casualties by journalists embedded with American forces. Those rules call for photography of casualties to be taken from a "respectful distance" and are aimed primarily at preventing a news organization from releasing information through which the next of kin could learn of a service member's death before being notified by the military.
Instead, it raised a moral dilemma over whether to respect the wishes of Bernard's father to withhold from public view the intensely personal image or to publicize it in the interest of revealing the profound pain of war to more Americans.
Gates placed priority on the family's feelings, much as he did when deciding this spring to allow families of fallen service members to chose whether to permit coverage of the military ceremonies conducted when the remains are brought to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Gates grew "furious" when informed by aides Thursday of the AP's plan and the Bernard family's concerns, and he immediately phoned Thomas Curley, chief executive of the news service, to urge him to reverse the decision, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. "I am begging you to defer to the wishes of the family," Gates told Curley, according to Morrell.
Curley said he would revisit the decision with editors. He called back to say the AP would move ahead with the distribution.
Gates then sent a letter to Curley, in which he said, "Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front pages of multiple American newspapers is appalling." It would cause the family "yet more anguish," he said.
In the AP article, Santiago Lyon, the director of photography, called it a "journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."
The Washington Post decided Friday to publish the photograph online, as part of a slideshow preceded by a warning that some of the images "may be disturbing because of their violent or graphic nature."
Editors decided not to publish the image in the newspaper. Several related images appeared Friday on the Post's Web site as part of an automated feed of AP photography, but not the one of the wounded Marine. Interim Presentation Editor Bonnie Jo Mount said that the photograph was probably filtered out because the AP had designated it as "graphic content."