In a teaser for an article this morning, Politico declares that Defense Secretary Robert Gates “says the AP’s transmission of a photograph showing a mortally wounded Marine is out of line.” That teaser upset me; I don’t believe it is the job of a government to declare photographs “in line” or “out of line,” and it’s certainly not the job of the press to get “in line” or listen to government declarations that its conduct “out of line.” The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly sets out the freedom of the press from government interference, but it’s been recently revealed that the military has been encroaching on the freedom of the press with programs of journalist “profiling” and “neutralization.” I clicked through to read the full Politico article on the subject, indignant.
But when I read the actual text of the article, I found no declarations by Robert Gates that the press was “out of line.” In his letter to the Associated Press, Robert Gates expressly declared that AP had the right to publish the photograph — in this case, of a Marine dying in Afghanistan. He wrote on behalf of the Marine’s family who had expressed upset that the photograph might be published. And he wrote in a position of supplication, asking, not demanding, but asking the Associated Press to reconsider its decision. As long as such supplications aren’t backed up by the force of government punishment, I think they’re appropriate.
I also think the AP response to be appropriate: no, we’re publishing the photograph. If Americans can only see pictures of war that make war look the way that military wants it to look, then Americans’ picture of war will be highly distorted.
You can see the photograph here.