The heaviest flow of calls and e-mails this week was about something I wrote last week.
I said that some readers felt that enough pictures of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers had been published and that it wasn't necessary to print more. I also reported that other readers were furious at The Post because, they claimed, the photos were doing damage to the country and the military while stirring up Muslim anger at America, and they showed that the elite media hated President Bush.
I disagreed with that part, adding: "The reality of war in all its aspects needs to be reported and photographed. That is the patriotic, and necessary, thing to do in a democracy."
The column drew a good bit of favorable response. But then, on Tuesday, came news and video of the gruesome beheading of Nicholas Berg, a 26-year-old Pennsylvania businessman, by five masked Islamic militants. After that, a couple of dozen e-mailers wrote, many of them quoting my words, and saying, as one put it: "If you believe that showing the sensational abuse photos is salutary because it shows the 'reality' of war, then I expect your newspaper to run photos of the murdering jihadists holding Nick Berg's severed head. How can you draw a distinction? How can you justify the showing of the former but not the latter?"
Another said he agreed with what I had said and "that is why I expect you to lobby The Post to print a picture of Berg's murder and post a link to the video on your Web site. After all, in a democracy we have to see the reality of the world's violence to understand why our actions are necessary. Or do you just support the distribution of images that cast the U.S. in a bad light?"
First, let me separate myself from the paper, because I have no role in Post decision-making. I asked Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. about the decision and he said: "It would, in my view, be quite offensive to many of our readers and insensitive to Berg's family to publish a photo of the actual beheading. That simply is not comparable to the selected abuse photos we published. We are always very cautious about publishing photos of dead or dying people. In fact, we have withheld from publication several photos, including one of the MPs posing with the body of a dead Iraqi soldier in a military morgue."
No major U.S. newspaper or television network, as far as I know, published pictures of the decapitation. Had they done so, I believe the outcry would have been huge and justifiable. The pictures that were published were similar to those preceding the videotaped execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002.
Last month, The Post and many other major news organizations published pictures of American civilian contractors whose bodies had been burned, mutilated and hung from a bridge. So the horrors inflicted on those who fell into the hands of Islamic extremists were well documented. Those dead Americans were not identified at the time, nor could they be identified in the photographs.
As for my own words, a couple of readers said in e-mails that I should "cram the sanctimony" and the "self-righteousness." Fair enough. But I would argue that the newspaper did not need to publish a sequence of photographs of the beheading, as the Web site drudgereport.com did, because we knew that such murderous things had happened before, to Pearl and the U.S. contractors, and because the story and picture that were used left no doubt about what happened.
At the risk of sounding sanctimonious again, it seems to me that what is most important, and what should matter most to Americans, is what Americans do. The valor of thousands of U.S. soldiers has been well reported and photographed. The images of the costs, in fatalities and life-altering casualties, have been much less well recorded. And shocks like the prisoner abuse scandal have not really been imaginable until now.
It is not necessary that newspaper readers be forced to look at an innocent civilian's head being cut off and held aloft. But whether there should be a link to such photos on washingtonpost.com or other Web sites, perhaps with a warning, seems like a much closer call to me, one worth discussing. It would give some readers a choice. This is a different and very brutal kind of war, and it may go on for a long time, with digital technology intruding more and more on news decision-making.
There were reader comments about other aspects of Wednesday's front-page pictures and story. A few readers said The Post printed "the most benign photo you could find relating to a far worse atrocity." I agree. The picture The Post used was very small and did not show the killer raising his knife or grabbing Berg's hair before killing him. Those photos were published in several other papers.
The other picture, an Associated Press photo of Berg's father collapsing into the arms of his other son, was given large display on the front page. Several readers felt this was an "indefensible invasion of privacy" and an "intrusion" into the lives of a vulnerable and grief-stricken family. Downie points out that this photo was widely used on front pages all over the country and was one of several that the family allowed an AP photographer to take during an interview.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.