Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The bottom line is that you agreed not to...

this is just one of the many milblog references to the AP's posting of a photo of a young Marine fighting for his life, who subsequently passed away. The family of Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard, killed in Afghanistan had reportedly asked

Here's the controversy in a nutshell

The picture, taken by embedded AP photographer Julie Jacobson, shows Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard suffering severe leg wounds from a rocket-propelled grenade fired at him in an ambush in Helmand province on Aug. 14.

The 21-year-old Marine's father, from New Portland, The AP said it decided to publish the photo even though Bernard's father objected. A report claims Defense Secretary Robert Gates strongly objected to the organization's decision, and told the AP his feelings in a letter., reportedly asked the AP to take down the photo in an interview and follow-up phone call.

I have mixed feelings about this to be sure. The issue isn't as clear cut for me as it is for others.

A good friend of mine and great writer had this to say about the controversy. He has deployed to Iraq three times and been a tremendous Public Affairs Officer. He writes -- and writes well -- over at "Armed and Curious"

My response to his well-crafted post ran too long for the comments section so I put it here.

I agree with your thoughts here as they pertain to the trust between journalists and our military. I think that the relationship -- tenuous at the best of times -- has been worsened by the actions of Ms Jacobson and her supporters at the AP.

So too, has the relationship between PAOs and our military forces been damaged. Our credibility is on the line, often with forces with whom we have had little time to build a critical relationship. Suddenly, we are introducing to their unit a reporter alongside whom they'll live -- and sometimes die -- and telling them that it's important in our obligation to inform the American people about our mission and the men and women who accomplish that mission.

Having just returned from 10 weeks at the Joint Forces Staff College, I was surprised at how little love there was for PAOs from operators and others, such as the IO community. At best, we are seen as a necessary evil and at worst, a complete roadblock to the success of the mission.

This situation certainly isn't going to help us the next time we need to convince a unit to take an embed along.

I am interested in seeing what steps the military will take towards Ms Jacobson for violating the terms of the agreement she signed. This is for no other reason than to see the message we will be sending to other journalists that will, and I do mean will, do such things in the future.

I agree that she should be sanctioned and removed from our military care (I mean dropped off somewhere safe, not in the middle of nowhere) because she violated the agreement she signed. But only for that reason.

I am not sure that the arguments about the wishes of the family or the potential use of such photos should be of paramount importance here.

Don't misunderstand: if we have the rule that photos that allow identification of a servicemember will not be allowed -- either by nametag or other distinguishing characteristic -- then we should support that rule and take actions when that rule is violated.

I certainly understand the feelings of the family, but wonder whether we open a dangerous precedent when we allow the feelings of the family to dictate what events, which happen in the public realm, will be covered in the media?

Is it really that far a jump from the Bernard family's decision to any family’s decision to say, "we don't want photos of our loved one to be published because of our feelings and the situation it creates for us." The principle of allowing a 3rd party to be the deciding factor in media coverage is a difficult one, full of larger implications that warrant discussion and exploration.

As far as showing photos like this as a general rule... I wonder whether it's not better for Americans to truly see what happens when they send young men and women who are fighting the nation's wars, or at the very least photos where a particular individual cannot be recognized. How else will Americans develop an appreciation for what we truly do, and the sacrifices we truly make? I don't see Americans developing this sense of appreciation from seeing flag-draped coffins, or a photo of a bugler at Arlington.

I do appreciate and understand the American sense of outrage at the AP over a sense of profiteering over the photo. Americans are keenly aware of anyone they see as taking "unfair advantage" of a situation to profit.

I just finished reading "Sway: the irresistible pull of irrational behavior" in which the authors referred to a study where Americans were offered a choice. The choice was to take a split of 10$ predetermined by a complete stranger the chooser would never meet or know anything about. If the chooser accepted, then both parties would get the money, if the choice was rejected, then neither party got any money. Americans almost universally rejected any split that was not 50-50... claiming that it was "unfair" that a stranger would profit more than they, despite their receiving money for nothing. This principle held regardless of the total amount offered.

I can't help but wonder if the same principle is at work here for some people: that some people will refuse to see anything other than the AP and the reporter are gaining from this young Marine's death. Which they are, to be sure.

But as to what I would do in this situation: I would pull Ms Jacobson's credentials and send her packing. She violated her agreement, plain and simple. That's the deontological side speaking ... the consequentialist in me says that maybe there is more good than bad that comes from these types of photos... I just don't know. But I know the answer isn't simple and is full of the 2nd & 3rd order effects of which you so eloquently refer.

At the end, all I can be sure of is that this Marine's death -- like so many others -- is a terrible tragedy, and that I hope that some good comes from it in Afghanistan and other places around the world. Bless him and his family!

And thank you for always making me think... I really wish we could have been stationed at the same post at the same time!


crossposted to