KENT WARD

Death photo release a tough call

Posted May 06, 2011, at 9:04 p.m.

When President Barack Obama decided against releasing photographs of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden’s corpse, he unwittingly spared the country’s newspaper editors and their television counterparts the trouble of making their own tough decisions regarding publication of the reportedly graphic images.

He needn’t have bothered, for most decision-makers in print and broadcast media routinely face similarly difficult choices and likely would have relished the challenge of determining the appropriateness, in their own markets, of publishing the photographs. It’s in their DNA. And it’s why they get paid the big bucks.

Obama said Wednesday he chose not to release the photos of bin Laden — the long-sought al-Qaida leader killed when Navy SEALs stormed into his compound in Pakistan on Sunday — because their graphic nature might incite violence and create national security risks for the United States.

“It would be of no benefit to gloat,” the president told CBS News in an interview to be aired Sunday evening on the network’s “60 Minutes” program. “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence.”

Not everyone agreed with Obama’s decision, including his own CIA director, Leon Panetta, who earlier had told NBC News that a photo would ultimately be released to the public. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, while praising President Obama for boldly sending in the Navy SEAL team, said the decision to withhold the photos was a mistake.

The purpose of a ground operation, as compared to taking out bin Laden by an airstrike, was to obtain indisputable proof of his death, Graham said in a statement. “I know bin Laden is dead,” he said. “But the best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world.”

Bin Laden was an intimidating presence in the Muslim world, Graham told Fox News. Release of the photos would reassure those who doubted his death, in effect telling them, “You don’t have to take our word for it. Here are the photographs.”

The sentiment on the street and on the cable talk shows concerning the presidential decision to suppress the bin Laden photos seemed roughly evenly divided. It was not unusual, however, for opponents of Obama’s choice to profess an understanding of why — given the national security implications — he decided to err on the side of caution.

When I asked Bangor Daily News editor-in-chief Mike Dowd if the paper would have run the photos had they been available, he said it would have depended upon how graphic — how potentially upsetting to readers  —  the pictures might have been deemed.

The BDN does not have a written policy concerning the relatively rare publishing of photos of dead bodies. “We take it on a case-by-case basis,” Dowd said, considering the newsworthiness of the event, as well as reader sensibilities. As an example of the paper’s handling of such matters, he cited the case of the deaths of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons, Qusai and Odai Hussein, early in the Iraq war.

The story of the pair’s demise began on the front page of the July 25, 2003, newspaper, jumping to page A2. Two one-column black and white photos, or “mug shots,” of each of the brothers — one picture showing the subject alive, the other showing him dead — ran with the jump on the inside page.

Perhaps the most memorable photo of the genre in BDN lore was the one that famously dominated the front page of the Oct. 12, 1937, newspaper. It showed the bodies of gangsters Al Brady and Clarence Lee Shaffer of the notorious bank-robbing Brady Gang lying on the cobblestones of Central Street in front of Dakin’s Sporting Goods, victims of a dramatic and subsequently well-chronicled shootout with FBI agents.

Nearly 75 years after the fact, that compelling news photo remains an enduring image in the rich and colorful history of Bangor. How regrettable it would have been had the paper’s management shied from making the gutsy decision to publish.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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