Defense Secretary Robert Gates is objecting “in the strongest terms” to an Associated Press decision to transmit a photograph showing a mortally wounded 21-year-old Marine in his final moments of life, calling the decision “appalling” and a breach of “common decency.”
The AP reported that the Marine’s father had asked – in an interview and in a follow-up phone call — that the image, taken by an embedded photographer, not be published.
The AP reported in a story that it decided to make the image public anyway because it “conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it.”
The photo shows Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard of New Portland, Maine, who was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in a Taliban ambush Aug. 14 in Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, according to The AP.
Gates wrote to Thomas Curley, AP’s president and chief executive officer. “Out of respect for his family’s wishes, I ask you in the strongest of terms to reconsider your decision. I do not make this request lightly. In one of my first public statements as Secretary of Defense, I stated that the media should not be treated as the enemy, and made it a point to thank journalists for revealing problems that need to be fixed – as was the case with Walter Reed."
“I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family. Why your organization would purposefully 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 American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right – but judgment and common decency.”
The four-paragraph letter concluded, “Sincerely,” then had Gates’ signature.
The photo, first transmitted Thursday morning and repeated Friday morning, carries the warning, “EDS NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT.”
The caption says: “In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 14, 2009, Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard is tended to by fellow U.S. Marines after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade during a firefight against the Taliban in the village of Dahaneh in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Bernard was transported by helicopter to Camp Leatherneck where he later died of his wounds.”
Gates’ letter was sent Thursday, after he talked to Curley by phone at about 3:30 p.m. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates told Curley: “I am asking you to reconsider your decision to publish this graphic photograph of Lance Corporal Bernard. I am begging you to defer to the wishes of the family. This will cause them great pain.”
Curley was “very polite and willing to listen,” and send he would reconvene his editorial team and reconsider, Morrell said. Within the hour, Curley called Morrell and said the editors had reconvened but had ultimately come to the same conclusion.
Gates “was greatly disappointed they had not done the right thing,” Morrell said.
The Buffalo News ran the photo on page 4, and the The (Wheeling, W.Va.) Intelligencer ran an editorial defending its decision to run the photo. Some newspapers – including the Arizona Republic, The Washington Times and the Orlando Sentinel – ran other photos from the series. Several newspaper websites – including the Akron Beacon-Journal and the St. Petersburg Times – used the photo online.
Morrell said Gates wanted the information about his conversations released “so everyone would know how strongly he felt about the issue.”
The Associated Press reported in a story about deliberations about that photo that “after a period of reflection,” the news service decided “to make public an image that conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it.
“The image shows fellow Marines helping Bernard after he suffered severe leg injuries. He was evacuated to a field hospital where he died on the operating table,” AP said. “The picture was taken by Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson, who accompanied Marines on the patrol and was in the midst of the ambush during which Bernard was wounded. … ‘AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is,’ said Santiago Lyon, the director of photography for AP.
“He said Bernard's death shows ‘his sacrifice for his country. Our story and photos report on him and his last hours respectfully and in accordance with military regulations surrounding journalists embedded with U.S. forces.’”
“An AP reporter met with his parents, allowing them to see the images,” the article says. “Bernard's father after seeing the image of his mortally wounded son said he opposed its publication, saying it was disrespectful to his son's memory. John Bernard reiterated his viewpoint in a telephone call to the AP on Wednesday. ‘We understand Mr. Bernard's anguish. We believe this image is part of the history of this war.
The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice,’ said AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski.
“Thursday afternoon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called AP President Tom Curley asking that the news organization respect the wishes of Bernard's father and not publish the photo. Curley and AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said they understood this was a painful issue for Bernard's family and that they were sure that factor was being considered by the editors deciding whether or not to publish the photo, just as it had been for the AP editors who decided to distribute it.”
The image was part of a package of stories and photos released for publication after midnight Friday. The project, called “AP Impact – Afghan – Death of a Marine,” carried a dateline of Dahaneh, Afghanistan, and was written by Alfred de Montesquiou and Julie Jacobson:
“The U.S. patrol had a tip that Taliban fighters were lying in ambush in a pomegranate grove, and a Marine trained his weapon on the trees. Seconds later, a salvo of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades poured out, and a grenade hit Lance Cpl. Joshua ‘Bernie’ Bernard. The Marine was about to become the next fatality in the deadliest month of the deadliest year of the Afghan war.”
The news service also moved extensive journal entries AP photographer Julie Jacobson wrote while in Afghanistan. AP said in an advisory: “From the reporting of Alfred de Montesquiou, the photos and written journal kept by Julie Jacobson, and the TV images of cameraman Ken Teh, the AP has compiled ‘Death of a Marine,’ a 1,700 word narrative of the clash, offering vivid insights into how the battle was fought, and into Bernard's character and background. It also includes an interview with his father, an ex-Marine, who three weeks earlier had written letters complaining that the military's rules of engagement are exposing the troops in Afghanistan to undue risk.”