U.S. Defense Secretary Doesn’t Understand Free Press

Yesterday, an Associated Press photograph by Julie Jacobson of a mortally wounded U.S. marine sparked intense controversy when the picture was released for printing in newspapers.  U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, attacked the decision by Associated Press as  an “unconscionable departure” from the restraint that most journalists have shown in covering the military since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  He went on to say in a letter to Associated Press:

Why your organization would purposely defy the family’s wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me.  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.

This public official clearly does not understand the function of a free press.  He is a holdover from the Bush administration which was the most repressive in the history of the United States, going so far as to prevent any photographs of the caskets of our war dead.  Journalists have been ’embedded’ with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.  Most of their photos stay well clear of the true nature of war.  In fact, the majority of the journalism practiced in the theater of war since 2001 has been pathetically weak, looking as if it were all passed through some secretive military approval process before being published.  Most of what passes for journalism really looks like nothing more than a military recruiting program.  We see pictures of soldiers walking around, eating, firing howitzers, driving Humvees, or firing their weapons over a wall.  We see very little of what war actually is.  It is dead people.  It is people blown apart.  Bleeding.  Screaming.  Burning.  Dead soldiers.  Dead civilians.  Dead children.

Secretary Gates has no business attacking journalists for doing their jobs correctly.  The subject of war is death.  A photographer who takes pictures of soldiers walking around or shooting or eating in the mess hall is not taking pictures of war.  War is death.  You can only photograph war by photographing the dead, dying and injured.  No other photographs count.

The soldiers are very brave and do an incredible job.  But they are employees of the federal government and work for the people of the United States.  We have a right to see photographs of the true nature of our soldiers’ work.  We have the right to see our soldiers when they are alive and when they are dying.  It is truth.  It is reality.  Photojournalists are there to capture reality.  Not what we wish would happen.  Not what we imagine happens.  They are there to photograph what really happens.

Why does Secretary Gates not object to photographs of dead enemy soldiers?  Why doesn’t he object to photos of injured earthquake victims?  For some reason, photographs of dead or dying U.S. soldiers are off-limits.  Why would the primary outcome of war be off-limits to a free society that owes a great deal of its freedom and strength to a free press?

Associated Press did the right thing.  They did what journalists do.  They reported what they saw.