Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Debate Over Photo Of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On August 14th, a volley of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades erupted from a grove of pomegranate trees in Afghanistan's Helmand Province - a Taliban ambush directed at a patrol of U.S. Marines. One of the RPGs hit Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard in the legs. His wounds proved fatal.

Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson took a series of pictures that day, one of which showed Marines attending to Corporal Bernard. After deliberation, the Associated Press decided to publish that picture. They waited until after Bernard's funeral. They showed the photograph to his family, who then asked them not to publish. After an angry letter from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the AP editors reconsidered, then decided again to go ahead.

Some news organizations published that picture, some did not. Why or why not? We want to hear from members of the military and their families, but the issue affects everybody. Where is the balance between a family's right to privacy and the public's right to know?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: [email protected]. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Judy Shepard joins us. Her new book is "The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed."

But first, the debate over publishing the picture of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard. And we turn now to Scott Wasser, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald, one of the newspapers that arrives daily in Lance Corporal Bernard's hometown of New Portland, Maine. Good of you to be with us today.

Mr. SCOTT WASSER (Executive Editor, Portland Press Herald): Thank you. Thanks, Neal. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And Scott Wasser, August was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. involvement there. Troop levels, policy - all a matter of growing national debate. You decided not to run this photograph. Why?

Mr. WASSER: Well, I just didn't see anything that it really contributed to the public's well-being or knowledge base. I mean, to me, it was a gruesome photo that - I guess the question is: Why not? Why would I run it?

CONAN: Was the family's decision in this case - did that weigh one way or the other?

Mr. WASSER: Well, that - it's funny, because it really didn't. The genesis of what happened here was, we discussed the story when we had our planning meeting for the next day's paper, and it really didn't - I don't know - I don't remember what the budget line said, exactly. But we had a Mainer killed in Afghanistan or Iraq - frankly, I can't even remember which it was - a couple weeks earlier. And I think some of the editors thought it was either the same incident, or somehow related to that. We didn't realize it was a different person.

And when we got out of the meeting and we looked at the story more closely and looked at the photos, my deputy managing editor turned to me and said, you know, what do you think about running this photo? And I looked at it and I said, no, I wouldn't run it. And it wasn't 'til after that, that I actually read the - towards the end of the story, or maybe it was in the AP's explanation of why they chose to distribute it, that I saw the comments from the Marine's father and, you know, had asked them not to run it. So that really didn't enter into our decision.

CONAN: You'd already made that decision before you saw it, is what he said. The - I'm sure you've thought about this as well. Some would say we don't understand the true cost of war unless we see its cost.

Mr. WASSER: You know, we had a great column in Sunday's paper by one of my staffers, and he's not normally a column writer, but he's actually my copy desk chief. And after this discussion that we had about that story, that night he just felt compelled to write something about it. And it's - we're still new in owning and running the newspaper. We purchased the paper in June, mid-June, so this is all a learning process for a lot of us, and particularly for the people who work for us. And typically, we wouldn't run somebody else's column there. That's space that's reserved for our publisher and owner and editor.

And - but this column was so compelling that we felt obliged to run it. And in that column - and I'm paraphrasing him - he said something like, we all know the cost of war. You know, older people who read the paper grew up with Vietnam, some of them with the Korean War, some even World War II. We know, you know, death and destruction. Younger readers remember the first Iraqi conflict, the - or the one that we're trying to extricate ourselves from right now. Do we really need a visual reminder of it?

I mean, to me it was - and I think as a group, all of our managers felt the same way. It was just a gruesome photo that didn't add anything. It didn't inform anybody of anything. We know people are getting killed. We know that when people die, it's gruesome. You can go back, you know, 200 some-odd years and look at the - maybe my time frame is off - look at Matthew Brady's photos after the fact.

CONAN: They were after the fact. They were published, though, appeared in galleries in New York and various other places shortly after the battles that they happened in. But anyway, let's bring another voice into the conversation. Joining us from our bureau in New York is Greg Mitchell. He's the editor of Editor and Publisher magazine, which has covered this AP photo controversy. And Greg, we wanted to bring you in to provide us with a little background on what happened to Lance Corporal Bernard on the battlefield, how these photographs were taken, and the process by which they came to be published by the Associated Press.

Mr. GREG MITCHELL (Editor, Editor and Publisher Magazine): OK, thank you.

CONAN: And so we know about the photographer. She was embedded with this unit of Marines and took a series of photographs that day. Presumably, they were then transmitted back to the Associated Press in New York.

Mr. MITCHELL: That's right. She was - as some people may know, the embed rules go back to the beginning of the Iraq War. They really weren't in previous conflicts. And if you choose to be embedded with the units, of course, they look after you and protect you, but you get up close to the action. But you also sign a contract which says for reporters, you can't report certain troop movements and many other things, and for photographers, that you are not allowed to publish photos of dead or severely injured troops before the Pentagon is notified, before the name is announced and the next of kin is told. So these are - photographers and news organizations know this out front.

Now this case was a little different. AP explains the context. They did not go forward with this until more than two weeks after the fact. The photograph was taken from a distance. The photographer also was under fire. She did not get close. She was not in a position to help in any way. The photo is rather grainy. The embed rules stipulate that it's OK to run photos if they are taken from a distance and if they do not show the facial features of the person who has been killed or wounded.

And also, the - as the AP explains, they didn't just simply run this photo, you know, for shock value or standing on its own. It was part of a package which, in a sense, was paying tribute to the soldier. The photographer and reporters had interviewed him earlier in the day. They had taken pictures of him before the incident. And when they reported his death two weeks ago, before any of this broke out, they ran photos of the service for him, the tributes that other people - there's a photograph from his service that was widely circulated.

And so, I think they went forward with this because they felt this was an unusual case. And in fact, as I've written about this for the magazine and in a book, going back to the beginning of the Iraq War, we have seen very, very few of these photos.

And that's why whenever there is a photo of this type, it's very controversial because we've hardly ever seen them. And many people feel that the war has been sanitized, that no one could really accuse the news media - whatever you think of this particular incident - no one could possibly accuse the news media of showing so many of these images over the years. There's been very, very few exceptions in this. And so, they have demonstrated incredible restraint - some people feel too much restraint. They have shown that…

CONAN: I wanted to follow up on that because once the AP made its decision known and had shown the picture to the family, and the father himself, a former Marine, said he did not want it published, then they got an angry letter from the secretary of Defense.

Mr. MITCHELL: Right. Well, like I said, in their view, this was a special case because of the context. They had a full context of just his life and the tributes that had been paid to him earlier. They felt the photo was not the sort of gruesome, up-close kind of photo. It was well after the fact, and they felt that it showed something that few of us really see on the battlefield.

In fact, I heard an interview with his father over the weekend on the BBC, and even his father was decrying the - I think he called them couch potatoes back in the U.S. who just let these casualties happen with hardly a second thought.

So I think, you know, he might agree that most Americans have not taken seriously or been so affected by each of these - now over 5,000 deaths, and tens of thousands of serious casualties. And you know, such a photo, you know, serves to remind people, maybe get the couch potatoes to, you know, recognize what's happening.

CONAN: About how many stations - newspapers ran it? How many didn't?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, we haven't done a complete count. I can tell you for all my searches, actually very few ran it. There were only - there were several papers that ran it online as part of photo galleries or sometimes prominently, but online only. Very, very few put it in print - you know, almost none.

So even in this case, it's true AP widely distributed it, but news media throughout the country again showed tremendous restraint in that actually a very small number actually decided in the end to air it.

CONAN: Greg Mitchell and Scott Wasser, stay with us. The similar conversation took place within NPR News, as well. The network ultimately decided to run the controversial photograph of Lance Corporal Bernard on the news blog. It's behind a warning screen that you have to click on. The screen states you might find the image disturbing.

Up next, we're going to hear from an editor who chose to not run the image in the newspaper but also chose to post it online, and your calls, 800-989-8255. Email: [email protected]. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When the Associated Press released the photo of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, it also released a statement explaining why it published it. It reads in part:

The decision to release the photo of the mortally wounded Bernard followed long deliberations within the AP about whether to do so. An AP reporter also met with Bernard's parents so they could see the images in advance of their release. AP journalists have covered conflicts around the world for 163 years and witnessed countless scenes of war's deadly consequence, but the decision to distribute them is never quickly or easily made. Ultimately in this case, AP decided that in the context of the full report, it was important to show readers and viewers the images. AP believes that the stories and photos report on Bernard and his last hours respectfully, and conform with military regulations surrounding journalists embedded with U.S. forces.

You can read the full statement from the AP on our Web site at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's get some callers involved in the conversation, and we'll start with Wesley(ph), Wesley with us from Brimfield in Ohio.

WESLEY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Wesley, go ahead, please.

WESLEY: Well, I just wanted to say that I think it was way wrong to put that photo in the newspaper. I'm a Gold Star father. My son was killed in Iraq in 2007. And if they want to show the cost of war, they can show a marketplace that has been destroyed by a suicide bomber. But against the parents' wishes -that photograph should have never been put in the newspaper.

You know, you can ask those people how they would feel if their son or daughter, God forbid, had been killed in a car accident. Would they want that to be put in the newspaper as part of a story on auto safety or something like that? It was just wrong.

CONAN: Wesley, first of all, we're so sorry for your loss, and I don't mean to be disrespectful in any sense, but this death happened as the result of American policy, and it is a very controversial policy. Should not the American people be able to see it?

WESLEY: I'm sorry, I didn't catch the last part of that.

CONAN: I said, it's a result of U.S. government policy that this, the death of your son and indeed, the death of this corporal happened. Should not the American people be allowed to see it?

WESLEY: You know, you can see the results of our policy by going to the national cemeteries and seeing the headstones of the young men that are coming home in boxes instead of walking home. And you can see photographs of those coffins being unloaded from an airplane. But something like that is, I think, out of bounds. I think it was sensationalism, and I adamantly disagree with it.

CONAN: And Wesley, again, we're sorry for your loss. Thank you so much for the phone call.

WESLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to…

Mr. MITCHELL: Could I respond to that a little bit?

CONAN: Who's this?

Mr. MITCHELL: This is Greg.

CONAN: Oh, go ahead, Greg.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I think a couple things. First of all, we were not allowed for many years to see the bodies coming home in coffins. Second, no one - almost no one will go to the cemeteries to pay tribute at the headstones. And, you know, it's an American - he used the example of someone who might have lost a son in a car accident. Well, this is a completely different case.

This is a war that we, the entire nation, is involved in. It's a war that's cost half-a-trillion dollars and more. It's a war that has cost hundreds and thousands of casualties on the American side. And so, we all have a stake in this war, and so it's a little different situation where you could say the public - what is the public's right to know when it's a national policy that is so - is really so costly for nearly all of us?

CONAN: And then, given his experience, I have to ask, Greg Mitchell, do you have sons or daughters who are in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Mr. MITCHELL: I do not, no.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Suzie(ph), Suzie with us from Scottsdale in Arizona.

SUZIE (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

SUZIE: I do have a son in Afghanistan, on his second tour, and he was actually not supposed to be back there and was supposed to be out in April, but he is back, and his best friend he grew up with, a West Point grad, is also over there. And both his mother and I feel that if anything happened to our boys, we would want it all over every media that is out there because we are both Vietnam-era women, and we feel we've been through this already, and when do we learn. And…

CONAN: Should the decision be based on the family, whether they agree to it being published, or if they disagree with it being published, it should not be?

SUZIE: I think it shouldn't be up to the families simply because I wouldn't want that decision and because I feel that we don't need to see the sanitized version of caskets and cemetery crosses. We need to see the real cost of this. And my friend whose son is there from West Point, his sister is a doctor at Walter Reed, and she gets to see what - the casualties that we don't get to see any of.

You know, she gets to see them every day coming off the planes with body parts missing and all of the other side of the destruction that's beyond the death, that's destroying an entire generation of our children, and for what?

CONAN: Suzie, we certainly hope we never have to have this conversation about your son.

SUZIE: I wish also that - I'd like to say that if we could have more media coverage of all that's going on over there with the Afghanistan army that is not motivated to support the learning and educating that they're getting from our boys because they just had too much of this war-torn activity in their country for too many years.

They've grown up with it, and they're desensitized to it, and according to a lot of media pictures, if you look on YouTube, you see a lot of things that we're not being shown here in this country that is being reported by other journalists in other countries. And you did an article about that on NPR recently, about how the military has control over who they allow to embed in American journalism, and I think that's wrong.

CONAN: Okay, Suzie, thank you very much for the call.

SUZIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now is Brian - excuse me, Boyzell Hosey, the photo editor for the St. Petersburg Times, which did decide to run this photograph, though they did it online and not in the newspaper. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. BOYZELL HOSEY (Photo Editor, St. Petersburg Times): Hi, it's Boyzell.

CONAN: Boyzell, I apologize.

Mr. HOSEY: That's okay.

CONAN: So, what was the process of making that decision?

Mr. HOSEY: Well, we had several conversations throughout the day. We knew that the photos were coming in and that they were embargoed until midnight of September 4. But during the conversations that we had in our news meetings, we had decided collectively that we would not run that photo in print.

For one, we didn't feel that it really contributed to the general story that was provided by AP. We decided to run the military portrait of Joshua Bernard, along with a photo of the burial scene - or the memorial.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. HOSEY: That was there. Now as far as online, we didn't even run the photo with that same AP story online. We ran that photo with the story that AP released about the - why they released that photo.

CONAN: So you released the photo of the mortally wounded Marine as part of the story about the controversy over the photo.

Mr. HOSEY: Exactly.

CONAN: And was it, as NPR did, behind a screen where you had to click, you didn't just encounter it?

Mr. HOSEY: Well, we had it both ways. Now, with the original story, we had it with the slideshow, which had the warning that there were graphic photos. That was there but you had to, you know, to click on that.

With the photo about AP releasing the photo, that was at the top of the screen, which we consider at the story level.

CONAN: What's the difference between running it in the newspaper and running it online?

Mr. HOSEY: Well, I think a few things, and I don't think every case is the same. You know, we factor in several things. For one, you know, the audience online is somewhat different whereas in the newspaper, that content is there, you don't really have to search for it like you do online, and it's - we're catering to a local audience.

When it's online, the audience goes just beyond our local readers. It reaches far beyond that, as well.

CONAN: And would it have been a different decision had this lance corporal been from St. Petersburg?

Mr. HOSEY: Oh, yeah, I think so. Like I said, we didn't run the photo anyways, but most definitely. If he was from St. Petersburg or the Tampa Bay area, we definitely would - probably would not have run that photo.

Mr. WASSER: Can I add to your previous question, Neal?

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. WASSER: The difference between running it online, and we did not run it online, but…

CONAN: This is Scott Wasser of the Portland Press Herald. Go ahead.

Mr. WASSER: The difference between running it online and running it in the newspaper is that when my 9-year-old wakes up in the morning, and he walks to the breakfast table, if he's up before me, and he goes out and gets the paper and brings it up to the table and starts turning to the sports section, he may be subjected to what I consider a gruesome photo. And I don't have any control over that.

I mean, I could say don't go to the newspaper box before I get there because I'm the editor of the paper, and I know what's in there, but…

CONAN: Most people don't have that, yeah.

Mr. WASSER: The average - right, exactly. Most people don't have that luxury. And so, by putting that on the front page or even the B section or even inside of any newspaper, people are picking that up not having any sense of what they're going to be looking at. And I think that, given the average person's sensibilities, you have to make the call that that's just not the right thing to put out there for public consumption when there is no control over it. By the same…

CONAN: And did you run it online?

Mr. MITCHELL: We did not run it online. But that was really more of a technical issue than an editorial decision. Quite frankly, if we had the opportunity to make that decision, I probably wouldn't have, having read the family's wishes by that time. And again, bearing in mind, that is our local readership. And you know, that's one of…

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. MITCHELL: …that's one of our markets. And that would have been in deference to the family's feelings, probably more than anything else. We did discuss the possibility of running it with a disclaimer, like NPR did. And at least then I would have been comfortable that I wasn't subjecting somebody to this photo who was not expecting it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Joe(ph). Joe calling us from Melbourne in Florida.

JOE (Caller): Hi. I want to say from the outset, I'm an ex-Marine. I served in Vietnam. And I've got the ultimate respect for Corporal Bernard's father, a first sergeant himself in the corps. My first reaction when I heard about the story was to protest the publishing of the photo.

But then I looked the photo up, and I read the context of how that photo was obtained and - excuse me - in the back story. What I saw was the care that this Marine's comrades made to save him. I felt that the photograph brought home what servicemen and women face every day. And I could imagine sitting with Ms. Jacobson, the photographer, and with Corporal Bernard's colleagues and viewing those photos and frankly, I'd want my friend's sacrifice to be shown to my fellow countrymen. I don't…

CONAN: Even if his family didn't want to?

JOE: That was initially why it was so - objecting to the idea. But reading the context, knowing that people would assume that the photo was exploitive to garner sympathies against the conflict, I was prepared to, frankly, to send a very strong letter to AP.

But after reading about the reporter who is embedded, reading what she did, she ran these photos by this corporal's comrades. I know if I had hadthat opportunity in Nam, I would have wanted any of my colleagues who lost their life to be so honored.

And as I started out, I've got great sympathy for the first sergeant, but this photo did not say to me that this war is wrong or this war is right. This photo said, we had a young American who went out there and gave his best. And that's what it meant to me.

CONAN: Joe, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about the publication of a picture of a dying Marine in Afghanistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Greg Mitchell, of Editor and Publisher magazine, let me ask you, did the - what Joe was just talking about on the line, the idea that this may have been part of an agenda, an anti-war agenda. Did that play into decisions, do you think?

Mr. MITCHELL: You can't say what individual editors believe when they choose to run something or not run something. I don't think, in this case, that factored in. Again, we saw very few editors actually run it. So if they really had such an anti-war agenda and if they thought this was an anti-war photo, they sure didn't follow through on it.

One other thing I'd add - and something that was just said a couple of minutes ago is - you know, people often say they don't want people exposed to gruesome photos like this when it comes to war. But yet, we allow our children to be exposed to incredible levels of violence on television, we allow them to attend movies. And even if the movie itself, by chance, is not violent and there's not -people getting shot and run over every 60 seconds, they are exposed to trailers which show such things.

And so, I mean, our children and our adults are exposed to incredible levels of gruesome violence, often accidentally or unintentionally - and yet doesn't seem to bother most people. And yet when it comes to a scene from a war, we suddenly get very worried about that.

CONAN: Some people say there's a difference between the reality and fiction. In any case, let's see if we can end with this phone call from Bob(ph). Bob with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

BOB (Caller): Hi. Just - for your previous caller, there are no ex-Marines, only former Marines. But I have - I have 23 years of total Marine Corps service, and I was rather torn when I heard about this photo. On the one hand, you know, less than a fraction of 1 percent of the American population has been keeping us free for the last eight years.

And so, I think for the average Joe on the street, it might be important for some people to see what the price of freedom really is. On the other hand, I really would have liked that the parents' wishes would have been respected. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bob, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

And, Boyzell Hosey, I wanted to get back to you. What's been the response to the publication online, there at the St. Petersburg Times?

Mr. HOSEY: Yeah. I'll tell you, online, we've had over 1,800 reader comments about publishing that photo. And I would say 70 percent - just roughly - you know, my estimation - about 70 percent against, maybe 30 percent for.

And Neal, if I can just say, you know, there are so many factors involved with deciding, you know, where to publish content across multiple platforms. You know, newspapers are now becoming 24/7 operations with their online components.

And I think what this does, though, it reminds us and it helps our own -what I call sensibility filters when we're making important decisions like this because I don't think you can just have a blanket policy or make these decisions in a snap, you know? There are all these things that we need to take into account. And we do have, you know, compassion for the Marines and the soldiers and the families.

CONAN: I think it's interesting that in every instance, this decision was not made lightly or casually.

But anyway, Boyzell Hosey, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. HOSEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Boyzell Hosey, photo editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Our thanks as well to Scott Wasser, the executive editor of the Portland Press Herald, there at Main Public Broadcasting Network Studios in Portland. Thank you for your time.

Mr. WASSER: You're welcome, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And Greg Mitchell, of Editor and Publisher magazine, joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks.

Mr. MITCHELL: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, Judy Shepard, a decade after the brutal murder of her son, Matthew, and her fight for new hate-crimes legislation. Her new book is called "The Meaning of Matthew." Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.