Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the news media when it comes to big stories and controversy. There was bound to be a controversy of some sort over the brilliantly planned and executed Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's palatial pad in Pakistan, and it has centered on whether to release photographs of the slain Al Qaeda leader and the White House's decision to not do so.
As a citizen, I understand the rationale for withholding the photos. They would needlessly inflame passions in Arab countries, be a great recruiting tool for what remains of Al Qaeda, and are in a very real sense, death porn. But as a former newspaper editor who had to decide on several occasions on whether to run an especially graphic photo I have been ambivalent.
The only contemporary precedent I can recall -- and the White House was not involved in this one -- was distribution by The Associated Press of a photo (above) taken by Jill Jacobson of mortally wounded Marine Lance Corporal Joshua "Bernie" Bernard over the objections of his family and the Defense Department.
Jacobson snapped the image just seconds after 21-year-old Bernard was hit by a grenade during a Taliban ambush in Helmand Province on August 14, 2009. Two Marines are leaning over his body in an effort to help him, and a puddle of blood is visible.
It should be noted that just as the White house discussed at length whether to release Bin Laden photos, the AP debated at length whether to distribute the photo and showed it to Bernard's father, himself a retired Marine. The AP story with which the photo was distributed two weeks after Bernard's death included a statement that the decision was made to use the photo because it "conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it."
Having covered a few wars myself, I believe that the AP got it exactly right, and that there is only one journalistic consideration that must be observed save for the rarest of instances: Revealing the location of a combat unit on the battlefield.
The grim futility of the war in Vietnam was brought home to Americans in a photo (above, right) of a naked Kim Phuc running down Highway 1 after a napalm attack, a then shocking Life magazine cover with a photo (above, left)) of a pilot dying on the floor of a medevac helicopter and a photo (below) of the My Lai Massacre.
Speaking of controversies, Little Miss Controversy herself weighed in on the Bernard photo and the White House's refusal to release Bin Laden photos.
Sarah, sinking to the occasion, had declared that the AP distributed the Bernard photo merely to "exploit" the Marine's death, and again sunk to the occasion when she tweeted last week Show photo as warning to others seeking America's destruction. No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama; it's part of the mission.
The legal entitlement arguments being advanced by pro-release advocates has merit, but so does the White House's arguments. Like I said, as a former newspaper editor I have been ambivalent about release Bin Laden photos, but taking the thoughts that I express in this post into consideration, I believe that photos should be released.