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Why Sanjay Gupta did the right thing

Why Sanjay Gupta did the right thing

Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira, referring to an incident where CNN medical expert Sanjay Gupta actually began treating patients in Haiti, asks, “Are reporters with backgrounds in medicine being show-offs when they simultaneously report on a disaster and administer care?”

A somewhat convoluted CNN.com writeup of the incident reveals that Gupta — after a team of Beligan doctors and nurses left a field hospital due to security fears — “monitored patients’ vital signs, administered painkillers and continued intravenous drips. He stabilized three new patients in critical condition.”

“I confess that when I saw the CNN reporter Sanjay Gupta caring for a baby in Haiti, dealing with the child’s head wound, I cringed,” Shapira writes. “I thought he had an ulterior motive, that he was trying to boost CNN’s flagging ratings by sending a message to audiences back home: CNN tells great stories, but CNN also saves lives!” Reporters aren’t supposed to get involved in the narratives they cover, but Shapira concludes, that in this case Gupta did the right thing by intervening.

Gupta’s story reminded me of Kevin Carter, the South African photographer who committed suicide in 1994, only a year after taking this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a Sudanese girl suffering from malnutrition as a vulture patiently awaits her demise:

Seeking relief from the sight of masses of people starving to death, he wandered into the open bush. He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. Afterward he sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried. “He was depressed afterward,” Silva recalls. “He kept saying he wanted to hug his daughter.”

The haunting image made Carter a global celebrity, but it also raised uncomfortable questions about whether he should have helped the girl rather than simply watching her die.  To be sure, Carter had plenty of emotional and financial problems, and he drank and used drugs excessively.  But’s it’s not hard to imagine that his world-famous photo left him wracked with guilt, contributing to his suicidal state of mind. In his rambling final note, he wrote, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”

That’s why I can’t blame Gupta for helping out when he did. On the one hand, he crossed a journalistic line and became part of the story. On the other hand, he probably saved a few Haitians’ lives. Imagine how he’d feel if he had to report on CNN that he’d stay there to watch them die that night?