Saturday, July 17, 2004

Four Dead Marines

This was passed along to me. It's an exchange between the editor of a local newspaper and a family of his readers. The family's military connections include a Pfc. in the 58th combat engineer company, out of Fort Irwin, Calif., currently at Camp victory in Baghdad.

I think this exchange illustrates, better than I could describe it, the new rift between a great many average Americans and their media. This is especially true of the millions of Americans with a loved one in the military.

It begins with a photo of four dead Marines, unidentified. Not a picture of flag-draped caskets -- the subject of an earlier flap involving the Pentagon and the press. That sort of photo can be presented with respect and dignity. We're talking about a dead-men-sprawled-in-bloody-uniforms picture.

The job of a free press is to inform citizens and to tell as much of the truth as it can through authentic reporting, while minimizing the harm caused by truth-baring. It's a tight-rope act some days, and graphic photos present that challenge in its starkest form. Just because you're the media, doesn't mean you print everything. Hometown newspapers have standards. You don't print names of child rape victims. You deprive your public of that much of the truth for a greater good.

Sometimes as a journalist you have to confront your readers with things they'd rather not know or see. But that doesn't mean you have to rub their faces cruelly in everything that comes across your desk. People die in wars, yes. You write about it. When they die, you publish the picture they posed for before shipping out. But to put pictures of dead smashed bodies in a paper that goes into tens of thousands of homes every morning is not something you just do as a matter of course. People die of cancer, too. It doesn't mean you put pictures of festering sores in a family newspaper.

In every paper I've ever worked for, to print a picture of dead bodies was anathema, only to be done in the most dire cases, when nothing else can tell the story, and only after much soul-searching.

Almost all newspapers have a policy governing morbid pictures. Many such policies prohibit the photos outright. The Texarkana (Texas) Gazette, to pick a random example, has a policy outlined in a 1989 editors' memo: "There may be some exceptions to this, if there is compelling news value. But as the norm, we will cease to show bodies under sheets, or in bags, or on stretchers, or in any other state of demise. I can't rationalize to myself how body photographs add anything to the value of our newspaper. Instead, I think many of our readers would find them offensive. ... The guiding philosophy behind the policy is one of compassion for the victim's friends and family and an empathy for the sensibilities of our readers."

At the four newspapers I've worked for, I can't remember one case where a picture of a dead body ran. I'm not saying it never should happen. But you make the decision very deliberately, especially when there is a possibility that someone reading the paper might be a family member of one of the dead -- who might thereby learn of the loss of a loved one when unfolding the local paper at breakfast and seeing a graphic photo of it.

Anyway, this is the letter that started it:

Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Letters to the Editor

Before publishing pictures of dead soldiers, put yourself in their shoes

On June 22 I distinctly saw a picture that greatly disappointed me. It seems that the Desert Dispatch has reached a new low by publishing a picture of four dead marines. That picture was something that shouldn't have been printed.

In this town I believe you owe a very big apology to the families of and members who are serving in the military.

The paper showed absolutly no respect or decency for the dead or the ones in uniform who keep us safe and protect us throughout our everyday lives.

I myself was very upset and offended by what I saw. I have my brother who is currently serving in the Air Force and my boyfriend who is in the army and currently over in Iraq, along with other family members who did serve their country.

You seriously need to look up the word "ethics" in the dictionary. I think you will find it helpful the next time you even attempt to publish something like that.

Also in conclusion, "food for thought," always look at both sides of the story. Then try putting yourself in the soldier's shoes.

Have you ever been shot at? Have you ever been so close to the gunfire that you can smell the gunpowder? Have you ever been literally scared out of your wits, but you react to your training?

Those are the shoes of a combat soldier. Think about it!

God bless America, and God bless our troops.

Lisa Martin, Barstow

Her father wrote a letter, too, published the following day:

Thursday, July 1, 2004
Letters to the Editor

Dispatch owes military families an apology for photo of dead Marines

On June 22 your paper published a photo and accompanying headline titled "4 Marines killed in Ambush." I have a question to ask: Wasn't the headline enough?

The reason I ask is the photo was an Associated Press photo. The good old Associated Press at its finest so they think. The photo contained pictures of dead marines.

Now I have another question: We live in Barstow, home to two military installations. Why in God's name was that picture published? Just because the Associated Press thinks it's OK to publish such things, that makes it OK for Barstow?

I think not, because in my humble opinion it violated human decency and respect for the dead, and to say nothing of the feelings of the families of those troops depicted.

Doesn't the Dispatch understand they were somebody's son, husband, father or brother?

Tell me something, do journalists (newspapers) have a code of ethics, standards that they live by daily? Are they like, respect the bounds of human decency, tell the truth, be unbiased and tell both sides of the story? If so June 22 was a failure in the decency and respect department.

I can only speak for myself, but I am personally revolted by what I saw. I have a son in the Air Force and a future son-in-law in Kuwait, so my tie to the military is strong.

They (the troops) are our sons and daughters, and yes I said ours! They stand a post every night all over the world and say it's OK to close your eyes tonight; it's safe.

And by God they will receive the respect they are owed, and have earned for protecting our freedom. It's been paid for with their blood and the blood of those who came before them.

I am reminded of 1945 and General Patton who described the press and its reporting in this fashion "as being the last remnants" of the great American press.

It's funny how something said so long ago still holds true today. The Desert Dispatch fell to a new low today and it's sad. The newspaper's former editor would never have published such a photo. The Desert Dispatch and you sir, owe the military people in Barstow and the Moms and Dads with kids in the military serving an apology.

God bless our troops.
Roger Martin, Barstow

Now, part of the ethics of being a newspaper editor is, you take your lumps when you've earned them -- and sooner or later you will earn them.

But the editor of the Desert Dispatch felt compelled to rally to his own defense in the form of a published editorial. As a former editorial page editor, I can tell you, this is bad form. The editor has the entire rest of the paper to manipulate the news to express his world-view, his prejudices, if he chooses to play that game. One page -- usually about a third of a page, actually -- he sets aside every day for his readers.

That's their space, to make their points, and express their views, which likely are different from his. There's something sacred about the inviolability of that, if there is anything sacred in a newspaper. Short of actual lies and libels, you let the people have their soapbox.

Yet this editor insists on pre-empting and trumping his reader, by printing a piece as long as the letter itself, in lugubrious purple prose, justifying what the reader finds as a fault.

Thursday, July 1, 2004
Consider everything about the Iraqi war

To truly understand the wages of war, one must step foot on the battlefield. Words and pictures only cannot convey the sound of gunfire ringing off a nearby building or the shock and horror of seeing fellow soldiers go down.

The only way, in fact, to even come close to bringing the true wages of war home to American residents, even those with friends and loved ones in Iraq, is to tell the honest story.

That means sharing the good and the bad, the uplifting and the gory, the victories and the defeats.

Recently the news media has come under fire for how it has covered the Iraqi conflict, but the criticism has come from both sides.

Liberals like Michael Moore claim the media hasn't done enough. News organizations, he states in his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" have willingly shelved the most graphic footage in order to support President Bush's dubious rationale for starting the conflict.

Others, including Desert Dispatch readers, argue the media has gone too far. This newspaper has received a number of letters, including the one you see below, complaining that showing American soldiers at their darkest hours demeans their sacrifices.

I wish I had a way to answer the critics on both sides, but I too find myself torn. I would not have published some of the photographs and stories other larger papers have, including the images of dead American contractors who insurgents hung from a bridge in Fallujah, but I also don't want to sugarcoat what is going on either.

No matter how much we support the president or our troops in Iraq, we need to realize that they are dying and often death does not come gently.

Graphic images can wake us from our apathy and encourage us to analyze the price our soldiers have paid.

In retrospect, I can understand why some thought the image of four dead marines we published was in bad taste, but I am heartened by the debate it has stirred.

To truly ensure that American soldiers have not died in vain, we must know the whole story.

Hans K. Meyer

Whew. "Both sides are complaining about us, so we must be right" is an old canard in the news business. Sometimes it's true, but often it's not. Especially it's not true when, as here, the one side consists of "your readers" and the other consists of "Michael Moore."

The one side starts out as "liberals such as Moore," but no other names ever appear, and frankly it's hard to think of any mainstream liberals calling for more American gore in the papers. (Moore doesn't just want more pictures: he has said he wants more of the real thing, to punish us for supporting Bush.)

Indeed, you can find a lot of "liberal" media that probably wouldn't run the picture the Dispatch ran. Lester Crystal, executive producer of “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” explained his policy thus: “For taste purposes, you don’t show people in agony on the air. You don’t show a lot of dead bodies.” And after the Atocha station terror-bombings in Madrid, the ultra-liberal Guardian in Britain ran a gripping front-page photo of people helping the wounded and dazed by the tracks -- with a severed human leg in the foreground of the original photo manipulated out.

Frankly, I didn't realize Moore had such heft with the editorial policies of the Desert Dispatch, when weighed against the impact of the people who actually plunk down their 50 cents for it, and shop in the groceries that advertise in it, and phone in with news tips from their neighborhoods.

The editor's invocation of Moore and only Moore is enough, as if more were needed, to collapse this defense. Evidently the editor couldn't find a legitimate media maven to back him up, so he settled for a manipulative partisan clown act.

He justifies the dead Marines photo by claiming that it is a necessary "balance" to the "good" and "uplifting" news. But if he's filling his wire news hole with the AP (and there isn't much alternative) he's missing anything that might read like "good news." There would be no word on the ongoing rebuiding of Iraq's infrastructure; the myriad ways its people are learning to breathe freely with their dictator gone; the thousands of humanitarian acts done by coalition people, military and civilian; and the utter heroism of so many men and women who are putting down the insurgency without devastating the country.

I bet he didn't have any stories about that in the Desert Dispatch. But I bet he ran a lot of Abu Ghraib pictures.

He tells his readers he would publish the pictures of dead American soldiers -- to show them "the whole story" and expose "President Bush's dubious rationale for starting the conflict." Yet he won't show them the truth about the fanatical and brutal murders of innocent Americans at the hands of Islamist terrorists and mobs, which just might inspire Americans to re-recognize the savages of 9/11 and dig in our heels for a harder fight.

Evidently this newspaper's policy on dicey photos is, "we run the ones Michael wants our readers to see." Heaven knows we can't show them anything that reveals the brutality of our enemies! Only the folly of our leaders.

Mr. Meyer's regular editorials must be a trip, by the way. This one reads like a drunken Memorial Day speech at the Elks Lodge. "Wages of war" twice in two paragraphs; and the opening statements utterly contradict one another: "words and pictures cannot convey what we convey to you with words and pictures."

"Old media" (newspapers, TV networks) have been dying for decades. This war, I think, will hasten their end. They no longer speak the same language as their readers. They no longer live in the same world.

But Mr. Martin is not done. Read the rest.

Roger's e-mail, by the way, is