Picture of wounded Marine sparks debate

September 4, 2009 7:27:20 PM PDT
Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed disappointment Friday at news outlets that used a picture taken and distributed by The Associated Press depicting a U.S. Marine mortally wounded in combat in Afghanistan. The AP distributed the picture despite personal pleas from Gates and the dead Marine's family in a case that illustrated the difficult decisions in reporting on a conflict where Americans have seen relatively few images of fallen U.S. troops over eight years.

The picture, by AP photographer Julie Jacobson, showed Lance Cpl. Joshua "Bernie" Bernard, 21, lying on the ground with severe leg injuries after being struck by a grenade in an ambush on Aug. 14, his fellow Marines tending to him. Bernard later died of his wounds.

Gates wrote a strongly worded letter to AP President and CEO Tom Curley on Thursday, saying it was a matter of "judgment and common decency" not to use the photo. A Pentagon spokesman said Gates followed up with a phone call "begging" Curley not to use it.

After the photo was published Friday, the Pentagon released its communications with the AP.

John Daniszewski, AP senior managing editor, said he respected Gates' view but that sometimes the government and press have different perspectives.

"We thought that the image told a story of sacrifice; it told a story of bravery," Daniszewski said. "We felt that the picture told a story that people needed to see and be aware of."

Jacobson and reporter Alfred de Montesquiou were embedded with Bernard's unit and had followed them on patrol in Dahaneh, Afghanistan. She took her pictures from a distance using a long lens. The AP on Thursday ran a package of photos from that day and others that showed his life in uniform and his memorial service. The AP also distributed a detailed story, accompanied by the photographer's journal and an article explaining why the photo was used.

Gates' plea came after the story and photo were sent on the wire but before the time set for releasing the package for publication. The AP had sent the photo as part of its package of stories and photographs under this "embargo" to give editors and producers time to consider whether to use the photo of the fallen Marine, the organization said.

Gates wrote that use of the photo of a wounded Bernard would mark an "unconscionable departure" from the restraint that most journalists have shown in covering the military since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The AP did not change its decision.

"Why your organization would purposely defy the family's wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me," Gates wrote. "Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple newspapers is appalling."

A check on Friday found the story had been used on at least 20 newspaper front pages. None used the picture of a mortally wounded Bernard on the front page, although it was used inside newspapers and on Web sites like the Huffington Post.

The Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger ran a picture of Bernard's memorial service on its front page and the ambush picture inside. Editor Jim Willse said it was "not a difficult decision for us," and said it would have run the ambush picture out front "if the story had been presented differently."

The Wheeling, W.Va., Intelligencer ran the photo inside and an editorial explaining why it did "after hours of debate."

"Too often, we fear, some Americans see only the statistics, the casualty counts released by the Department of Defense," the newspaper wrote. "We believe it is important for all of us to understand that behind the numbers are real men and women, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice, for us."

Not all of its readers agreed: One woman, having seen the picture in the Intelligencer, made an angry, emotional phone call to AP spokesman Paul Colford to protest it.

The Portland (Me.) Press-Herald ran an editor's note with the story saying it had received the photo but believed it would be in "poor taste" to publish it. Bernard was raised in New Portland, Me.

While the story was being written, an AP reporter visited the home of John and Sharon Bernard to learn more about their son. The couple was shown Jacobson's pictures, and requested that they not be used. In a later fact-checking phone call, John Bernard asked in stronger terms that the photos not be used, Daniszewski said.

Although the family was shown the pictures ahead of time as a courtesy, "we did not ask permission" to use them, Daniszewski said.

"There was no question that the photo had news value," he said. "But we also were very aware the family wished for the picture not to be seen. That created a difficult choice between our job to document the war and our respect for the suffering of the corporal's family."

During lengthy internal discussions, the family issue was the most difficult, he said. Ultimately, the AP concluded that "the photo itself is a part of the war we needed to cover and convey."

The AP had received dozens of e-mails and phone calls about its decision by mid-Friday, many of them critical, Colford said. It was a topic on Twitter, with one tweet saying: "as the wife of a retired Marine, and the mother of a soldier who is now in Afghanistan, I find the AP's `choice' to be a disgusting one."

The Huffington Post put the picture on its front page Friday under the headline, "Snapshot of an Unseen War." It provoked a vigorous debate among its readers. One wrote: "This just isn't right. The man is dead. Not injured. Dead. Just wrong."

The AP received an e-mail from some former military supporting its decision. Dan Cahalan, an Afghanistan veteran, wrote that "this is one of the realest accounts from a journalist I have ever read and just wanted to thank (Jacobson) for her honest reporting of the war."

Jorge Ruiz of Glendale, Ariz., said he and other ex-Marines had often talked about the sanitation of war and the social implications of a lack of images showing what war is really like.

"Death and the ugliness of war is not something we look forward to but a necessity to put the war in its proper context," said Ruiz, who also wrote the AP. "A picture is worth a thousand words. I applaud your courage to distribute the photo and the story of the death of Lance Cpl. Bernard."

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Associated Press Writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.


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