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Giving Aid and Comfort to the Facts

By Ben L. Kaufman · December 1st, 2004 · Media, Myself & I
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Kudos to WLWT (Channel 5) and NBC for broadcasting Kevin Sites' videotape of a U.S. marine killing a wounded man identified as an Iraqi terrorist.

We did not see the Iraqi's shuddering body as point-blank rounds hit, or blood spurting. NBC blacked it out.

Good news judgment. This isn't a video game for children. Instead, we see the encounter up to the moment the marine points his weapon. Brennan Donnellan, WLWT news director, said that made what happened "abundantly clear."

WLWT carried it on local and network news. NBC's decision to broadcast it on The Today Show made his decision "fairly simple" later, Donnellan says. His greatest concern was that WLWT not have or use the raw, unedited tape.

I'm not judging the marine. The Corps will do that. I don't know if he saw or feared the wounded man held a hand grenade or other weapon. I know that kind of fear, however, and my reaction.

Sites was a veteran combat freelancer embedded among the marines. In addition to nightly bang-bang footage showing advancing Americans, embeds are bound to report screw-ups. Sites isn't the first nor was this the bloodiest.

Before you judge Sites, read his letter to that marine unit: kevinsites.net

The decision to show us that ugly, frightening moment set NBC and WLWT apart from the consensus among journalism's gatekeepers. These often ignorant, partisan or timid editors behave as if they are "on the team" and spike images they fear might erode homefront support for the war.

Watchdog or lapdog? Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I? We've visited this kennel before. This isn't a tradition to be proud of, although some war supporters agree with their decisions.

Sites and bloggers who defended him say they have received death threats and accusations of treason.

Stupid. If we can't handle images of the intimacy and horror of combat, of dead and wounded Americans, of flag-draped coffins being carried from aircraft, we shouldn't send men and women to war.

Moreover, if those pictures stimulate debate, all the better. Informed dissent, of which we hear little in the mainstream news media, is not disloyal.

There are other reasons to praise such images.

Reporting by American and other embedded journalists provide a vivid contrast for much of the Arab/Muslim world, whose peoples never will see such images of their own brutal dictatorships on domestic TV.

These images offer an antidote to the angry mantra -- think Bill Cunningham, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and their fellow travelers -- that the liberal media are stabbing America in the back. No. It is self-censoring news media owners and editors who mock the historic justification of their own First Amendment rights and give aid and comfort to Al Qaeda and other enemies of open, democratic societies.

Finally, accurate, vivid reporting of misdeeds can reinforce the best instincts and practices of the American military (as opposed to their civilian masters). This can lead to better training and leadership and reduce the likelihood of the torture or execution for captured American military.

That's not far-fetched.

In his book on WWI cockups, The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson says decisions to take no prisoners actually cost lives. Once one side did it, the other followed. Men kept killing rather than surrender when capture or defeat was inevitable.

In WW II, German, French, American and Commonwealth soldiers expected fair treatment if captured. That was why my father, a combat surgeon, said it was such a shock during the Battle of the Bulge when an SS unit murdered American POWs, including medics and patients at Malmedy.

· · ·

The furor over Sites' video illustrates one of the double standards that abound in American journalism.

Images of vivid injury, death or horrified reactions to disaster or tragedy rarely are used if they involve residents of the circulation/broadcast area or people like us. You are much likelier to see corpses, wounds and misery of foreigners.

The traditional explanation is that the news media are invited guests who don't want their hosts tossing their cookies over images on the page or screen.

That has its cost. We all know images of scrawny, potbellied African children with telltale reddish hair or stoic Madonna-like starving women trying to suckle emaciated infants. When did you last see malnourished Tristate children, even though poor diets impose major public costs and diminish classroom performance with lifelong implications?

We've seen parts of people sticking up through mudslides that engulf villages abroad. However, no news media used photos of a young Kentuckian drowned in mud when the un-reinforced trench in which he was working caved in. Their publication might have aided ceaseless OSHA efforts to force contractors to abide by the law and reinforce deep trenches before sending workers into them.

Then there was Life magazine's two-page reproduction of The Cincinnati Enquirer's Glenn Hartong photo of a local firefighter carrying a semiconscious man from a burning building. Hartong is unequalled in his ability to record Tristate firefighters in action. What was stunning was the Enquirer decision to spike it because the man might die before the paper reached readers. So?

Had Hartong's photo been from the Oklahoma City bombing, it would have been page 1 here for its empathy and visual quality/impact.

War, massacres, floods, volcanic eruptions, fires, traffic accidents and other natural and human disasters provide some of our most informative images when we aren't protected by editors on the sensitivity desk.

· · ·

Curmudgeon notes
· George W. Bush is the least accessible president -- to the news media and public -- in memory. He treats the news media with open contempt as an adversarial special interest group pleading for government handouts. His first post-election press conference deliberately humiliated reporters who tried to ask follow-up questions after hearing Bush's answers to their questions. This maintains his preference for less aggressive, more compliant local reporters rather than national reporters during the campaign.

· When are the major national news media, whose crumbs we receive daily in local papers and broadcasts, going to stand up to the administration? And what happens when they're told to go back under the high table and wait for their scraps?

· Who is an eligible voter? News media reported endless polls without telling us whom pollsters were polling. That's at least as important as margin of error. Was the eligible voter any citizen 18 and older who was not a convicted felon, insane or otherwise disqualified? A registered voter? It matters.

· Finally, have we seen the back of those inept, corrupting exit polls whose only impact was to lessen the impulse to vote across the country? They deserve a prompt burial.



Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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