This Is What Journalism Has Become….

June 8, 1972.

Nick Ut, (Huynh Cong Ut), captures this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Phan Thị Kim Phúc. The 9 year old girl running toward the camera to flee a South Vietnamese napalm attack on the Trang Bang village during the Vietnam War.

“Even though it has become one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century, President Nixon once doubted the authenticity of my photograph when he saw it in the papers on June 12, 1972…. The picture for me and unquestionably for many others could not have been more real. The photo was as authentic as the Vietnam war itself. The horror of the Vietnam war recorded by me did not have to be fixed. That terrified little girl is still alive today and has become an eloquent testimony to the authenticity of that photo. That moment thirty years ago will be one Kim Phuc and I will never forget. It has ultimately changed both our lives” — Nick Ut

June 8, 2007

Exactly 35 years later, to the day, the same Nick Ut captures this image of Paris Hilton being returned to jail.

* * * * * * *

The US Military has imposed new sanctions and restrictions on what kinds of photographs from Iraq can be taken and published. This from the NY Times:

Not to See the Fallen Is No Favor

Published: May 28, 2007

On this Memorial Day, thousands of United States men and women are engaged in untold acts of bravery and drudgery on behalf of what our leaders have defined as vital American interests in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But even as the flags wave to honor soldiers past, much of the current campaigns go on without notice, because while troop numbers are surging, the media that cover them are leaking away, worn out by the danger and expense of covering a war that refuses to end.

Many of the journalists who are in Iraq have been backed into fortified corners, rarely venturing out to see what soldiers confront. And the remaining journalists who are embedded with the troops in Iraq — the number dropped to 92 in May from 126 in April — are risking more and more for less and less.

Since last year, the military’s embedding rules require that journalists obtain a signed consent from a wounded soldier before the image can be published. Images that put a face on the dead, that make them identifiable, are simply prohibited.

If Joseph Heller were still around, he might appreciate the bureaucratic elegance of paragraph 11(a) of IAW Change 3, DoD Directive 5122.5:

“Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member’s prior written consent.”

Photographs and other images of casualties have always been a delicate matter and most media outlets have shown restraint, particularly with pictures of the dead. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the ground commander in Iraq whose own son was seriously wounded in action, is said by reporters to be particularly alert to the depictions of casualties.

Working reporters say the soldiers in the field are not overly concerned with media coverage — they have more serious matters in their gunsights. The journalists also suggest that the current regulations have allowed the military to take concerns for the privacy of soldiers and their families and leverage them into broader constraints on information.

Ashley Gilbertson, a veteran freelance photographer who has been to Iraq seven times and has worked for The New York Times, (along with Time and Newsweek among others), said the policy, as enforced, is coercive and unworkable.

“They are basically asking me to stand in front of a unit before I go out with them and say that in the event that they are wounded, I would like their consent,” he said. “We are already viewed by some as bloodsucking vultures, and making that kind of announcement would make you an immediate bad luck charm.”

“They are not letting us cover the reality of war,” he added. “I think this has got little to do with the families or the soldiers and everything to do with politics.”

Lt. Col. Josslyn L. Aberle, chief of media operations for the Multi-National Corps in Iraq, said that the regulations are a matter of common sense and decency, not message management.

“The last thing that we want to do is to contribute to the grief and anguish of the family members,” she said by phone from Iraq. “We don’t want the last image that the family has of their soldier to be a photo of him dying on a battlefield. You have to ask how much value is added.”

There are some people stateside who would agree. In February, a story and accompanying video by The New York Times reporter Damien Cave — and a photo taken by Robert Nickelsberg — that depicted the grievous wounding and eventual death of a soldier on Haifa Street, drew both praise and condemnation on Web logs and in the military about what constitutes appropriate imagery for the breakfast table. What some readers see as a gratuitous display of carnage, others view as important homage to the boots on the ground.

Until last year, no permission was required to publish photographs of the wounded, but families had to be notified of the soldier’s injury first. Now, not only is permission required, but any image of casualties that shows a recognizable name or unit is off-limits. And memorials for the fallen in Iraq can no longer be shown, even when the unit in question invites coverage.

With credit to Patssle at, he cogently sums up the entire issue:

It sounds to me like the guy [Ut] managed to capture images that define society. He did it with his vietnam picture, and he did it again with that Paris Hilton pic

The Founding Fathers guaranteed access to a free press with the First Amendment. At that time, it was a radical idea, unheard of before. But it was liberty that was dependent upon a free and open discourse of ideas and opinions. It is still a free press; it is entirely up to us as to what we do with it.

We run the very real risk of becoming an idiot culture.


5 responses to “This Is What Journalism Has Become….

  1. What is fascinating and so grotesquely ironic about the entire thing is the similarity of the expression on the Princess Hilton and the little girl sprayed by Napalm (not to mention the dates of the photos). Though this entire episode perfectly articulates the degredation of journalism, journalists and media by corporate interests, it also articulates the breathtaking and cavernous divide between fantasy and reality that defines our current consciousness. Look at Hilton’s face. It is as if she had received a death sentence. Though I do not doubt this was highly intentional – she not only doesn’t cover her face but she’s actually leaning *towards* the cameras. Nobody who is experiencing anything like real pain would do that – unless, of course, they were so consumed by their pain that they were oblivious to the activity around them. I doubt this latter scenario was the case.

    The comment above – not so much a comment (there is actually ZERO response to the post) as a redirect – is a really great example of the product of corporate media. It’s the crass narcissism, rudeness and selfishness that defines most human interaction these days – couples who talk to cel phones in a restaurant (rather than to each other), kids who “collect” friends on facebook they don’t even know, those who talk but don’t listen … me, me, me, me, me. How boring.

  2. chandrasutra – Enjoyed reading your post – you hit the nail on the head on this issue.

  3. Thank you very kindly Cliff! I’m only joining a very large echo chamber of people who know more than I do. Hopefully that echo chamber gets larger 😉

    The real credit goes to *this* blog for scooping and contextualising this remarkable story. I only found this by accident — I’d done a search on Bourdain and voila, here I am. Always a treat to discover a good blog.

  4. Gordon Anderson

    I don’t doubt Paris’ pain is real. Imagine that all your life you felt protected by your parents from the world and the rules ordinary have to follow, freedom from the nasty police who normally do your bidding. Television being something you appear on and not watch. Why hide from the cameras when they have followed your every move for years? Only people who have never appeared on camera have any interest in trying to preserve their privacy and identity as a non-public person. You don’t see Conrad Black trying to avoid the mob that follows him, he only asks now that they leave him alone.

    I suppose your point is that as Paris Hilton has fallen so has Nick Ut. In Nick Ut’s defense I might ask if warzones are simply too dangerous these days. The Viet Cong probably welcomed western journalists and cheered whenever images such as the one above were published. The nasty people operating in Iraq or Afghanistan would probably relish removing Mr Ut’s head. No wonder he prefers sunny LA to the horrors of Baghdad.

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