Editor at McClatchy Paper Explains Decision to Use Controversial AP 'Dying Marine' Photo

By: Greg Mitchell (Commentary) In several articles and blog posts since late last week, E&P has chronicled the controversy over a photograph shot in Afghanistan in mid-August by Associated Press staffer Julie Jacobson. From a distance, it captured the moments after a U.S. Marine, Lance Corp. Joshua Bernard, was mortally wounded by a grenade, and showed him with one leg partly blown off, tended to by his comrades. He died at a hospital a short time later.

AP moved the photo, even though the Marine's parents, and the Pentagon, objected. Few newspapers ended up running it online, even fewer in print. A debate broke out over the handling of the photo, and the "sanitizing" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. I appeared on NPR to discuss it yesterday, along with two newspaper editors.

It is interesting, and vital, to look at one case study.

Mike Tharp, editor of the Merced Sun-Star in California, opted to print the photo on Saturday and post it online. He thinks his paper might have been only McClatchy paper to put it in a print edition. He also estimates that public opinion on this matter ran roughly 70-1 against that decision.

So I'll reprint here Mike's response to the heated criticism from the paper's Comments log.

09/05/2009 04:15:24 PM:
I expected these reactions when I ordered that both the AP photo and story be published in our pages and on this Web site. It's my responsibility, and mine alone, at the Sun-Star. I did so because, as a veteran, a war correspondent and an editor, I feel a deep duty to show American civilians the costs of fighting a war. To show the ultimate sacrifices paid by our servicemen and women in our name. Printed words, as your comments vividly show, wouldn't have generated the same responses as the image we ran.

Those of you in the Greatest Generation can recall hundreds of far more graphic images from both World War II and Korea. Those of you in my generation can do the same about iconic images from Vietnam. But since then Americans have become desensitized to the sacrifices we ask from those we send to war. Regrettably, the American press has censored itself and failed in its mission to bear witness to what war does to people -- and not just Iraqis or Afghanis ... but to mostly young Americans.

As a father I also understand those of you who commented about respecting the family?s wishes. I don?t take those wishes lightly. But the photo and story had been transmitted all over the world by the time it landed in Merced. I believe that a greater good came from our publishing the photo than by not publishing it.

That good is to make you, our audience, aware of what I myself have seen as a soldier and as a reporter ? and this photo and story are a small part of what happens in war. Publishing the photo and story are meant to show ? not just tell ? you, our audience, what it means to go to war.

Some of you 12,000-plus veterans in our county already know that. Most of you in our audience do not. Now you know a little more. I hope that you remember this image when you make your judgments about the two wars we?re in today and those in our future. If the photo serves to remind you of your duty as citizens and voters, it will have served its purpose.

04:42:53 PM:
For the record, the vast majority of the Sun-Star's revenue--as with all newspapers -- comes from advertising. Not circulation. And certainly not newsstand or newspaper rack sales. If anything, our publication of the photo would lower such sales. So that old dog -- "to sell newspapers" -- won't hunt.

07:30:50 AM:
As to whether the Sun-Star cares about troops and their families, all you have to do is check our record -- at the bottom of this Web site. There you can find our 2007 multi-part series, 'The War Comes to Merced,' about the ripple effects on our community from the two wars we're engaged in.

You can also find coverage of the war in Iraq by reporter Corinne Reilly and me, also under 'Special Reports.' We've both been there twice, and our stories and blogs in 2008-09 speak for themselves.


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