Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The dying marine: What the hell was the AP thinking?

The Associated Press’s decision to publish a photograph of a mortally wounded Marine over the objections of the family and of the Defense Department was wrong. Also, morally indefensible. Look, I’m a 1st Amendment fundamentalist. I lean in the direction of publishing anything and letting the public decide. But just because you have the right ...

The Associated Press's decision to publish a photograph of a mortally wounded Marine over the objections of the family and of the Defense Department was wrong. Also, morally indefensible.

Look, I'm a 1st Amendment fundamentalist. I lean in the direction of publishing anything and letting the public decide. But just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean it is the right thing to do.

Bob Goldich, a friend of mine whose son served as a Marine in Iraq, observes that, "the photo was not of LCpl Bernard after he had died -- it was while he was dying. I think this is crucial. The dead feel no pain. But the dying do, and publishing the photo transmitted LCpl Bernard's pain to his family."

The Associated Press’s decision to publish a photograph of a mortally wounded Marine over the objections of the family and of the Defense Department was wrong. Also, morally indefensible.

Look, I’m a 1st Amendment fundamentalist. I lean in the direction of publishing anything and letting the public decide. But just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.

Bob Goldich, a friend of mine whose son served as a Marine in Iraq, observes that, "the photo was not of LCpl Bernard after he had died — it was while he was dying. I think this is crucial. The dead feel no pain. But the dying do, and publishing the photo transmitted LCpl Bernard’s pain to his family."

The AP stated that despite the objections, it went ahead and ran the photo because it "conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it." I confess that I haven’t looked at the photo, and don’t want to. But if that was the AP’s purpose, what was so urgent that it couldn’t wait a few weeks or months, until the family had had a chance to mourn? I mean, these wars aren’t going away.

Today I am embarrassed for American journalism. As a former military reporter, I also am angry with the AP. They’ve committed the sin, but all of us in the media will pay for it. This one will haunt us for years. The Marines especially don’t forget. What a long way to come from Iwo Jima — that iconic photo of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi was taken by another AP photographer, Joe Rosenthal. 

I’ll end with a plea to the AP: It is never too late to do the right thing and apologize.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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