Did a Post photographer cross a line to get a picture of John Hinckley?

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, May 2, 2010

Several days before publishing last Monday's front-page story on prospects for releasing John W. Hinckley Jr. from a mental institution, The Post sought to capture an up-to-date photo of the man who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The assignment fell to veteran Post photographer Gerald Martineau, who drove to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington, where Hinckley has lived for 28 years since being found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Martineau entered the rambling campus through a security gate. He showed an ID but was not asked, and did not volunteer, his occupation or employer. He drove past two large "No Cameras" signs to a parking area near the John Howard Pavilion, where Hinckley lives. He soon saw the 54-year-old former presidential assailant feeding cats and began shooting images from his car.

A security guard spotted him and radioed an alert. Martineau's car was stopped as he attempted to drive off the hospital grounds. A lengthy standoff ensued. According to St. Elizabeths security reports of the incident, guards told Martineau he had violated the "No Cameras" rule. The reports said that he repeatedly refused their request to view the photos and that D.C. police were called and "advised him that he will be arrested if he didn't hand over" the memory card from his digital camera. Martineau got on the phone to seek guidance from Post superiors and legal counsel. "At the point when he was about to be arrested, we didn't delay any longer," recalled Post photo director Michel du Cille. Martineau relinquished the memory card.

On Tuesday, the general counsel for the D.C. Department of Mental Health sent Post Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli a scolding letter. Matthew W. Caspari wrote that although Martineau told security guards he had not seen signs forbidding cameras, he is "an experienced photographer who knew or should have known" that taking the photos was "a violation of Mr. Hinckley's dignity and privacy." Martineau stressed to me that he entered lawfully and insisted that he never saw the signs. The Post is preparing a formal response to Caspari's letter, and the fate of the memory card is unresolved.

News organizations often struggle with where to draw the line on privacy and whether to comply with prohibitions that can be excessively restrictive. Sometimes, they consciously violate rules -- explicit or implied -- for the public good. Several years ago, du Cille visited a patient treatment center with cameras hidden in a gym bag to document substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He and Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for their stunning exposé, which drew widespread praise from readers and public officials.

Ignoring "unjust demands and restrictions for the purpose of meeting the greater public good is a time-honored practice in American journalism," said Kenny Irby, a visual communications expert at the Poynter Institute on journalism studies in Florida. Historically, skirting restrictions on cameras has exposed horrid conditions in nursing homes or orphanages. And photographing people without their knowledge has documented public officials taking bribes and police officers playing sports despite receiving disability checks.

Hinckley is a public figure. In addition to Reagan, he shot two law enforcement officers and White House press secretary Jim Brady. "John Hinckley is not John Q. Public," Brauchli noted, adding that he is "a figure who is public, who is an actor in his own drama, who is at a public facility" and who is seeking court approval to be released to live on his own.

But where is the line? Discretion should be the guide. In this case, Hinckley was in a secluded area outside the John Howard Pavilion, which is his home. His conduct was neither unlawful nor unusual. With the "No Cameras" signs, I believe he had an expectation of privacy.

That said, he's clearly fair photographic game when he leaves St. Elizabeths. And in that respect, The Post could have gotten the photo it wanted, and avoided a confrontation, with a little foresight.

Monday's story noted that Hinckley frequently makes authorized trips outside the campus. He's often seen ducking into a nearby carryout to buy food for stray cats. He's ventured off the compound on "hundreds" of occasions "with hospital employees or on his own." He often visits his elderly mother in Williamsburg, and a judge last June granted him a dozen visits of "seven to 10 days each."

It might have taken some time and effort, but why not photograph him out in the open?

"That's a fair question," Brauchli said.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.


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