I was going to take a pass on the Mainstream Media Pseudo-Quandary du Jour, until David Carr — noted recovering heroin addict — weighed in vis his “Media Decoder” column in The World’s Worst Newspaper.
“It all happened so fast.”
That’s what R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photographer for The New York Post, said of the fatal subway incident on Monday that he caught with his camera. One man threw another into harm’s way, causing him to be run over by an oncoming train. This last part happened in the blink of a shutter.
But the decision to put the image on the The Post’s cover and frame it with a lurid headline that said “this man is about to die”? That part didn’t happen quickly. The treatment of the photo was driven by a moral and commercial calculus that was sickening to behold. (If the image is not already burned into your skull, it can be found all over the Web, including in The New York Times’s City Room blog. Tut-tutting about a salacious photo here while enjoying the benefits of its replication seems inappropriate.)
And it’s not just the media commentators who are weighing in. Twitter crackled with invective and recriminations. Every once in a while a journalism ethics question actually engages the public, and so it was with the brutally documented death of Ki-Suck Han, 58, of Elmhurst, Queens. Here are some guesses why.
1. Within its four corners, The Post cover treatment neatly embodies everything people hate and suspect about the news media business: not only are journalists bystanders, moral and ethical eunuchs who don’t intervene when danger or evil presents itself, but perhaps they secretly root for its culmination.
2. We are all implicated by this photo, not just the man who took it. The ensuing coverage talked about how “graphic” the image was, but there is nothing graphic about it. Photographs of the dead are graphic, but they are of people on the other side, the ones that are beyond hope. Here there was no blood, no carnage, only someone who is doomed, but still among us. (The photographs of the jumpers from the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center are considered tasteless for the same reason.)”
Well as we all know at the NYT “taste” always comes first.
“The picture of a man alone on a track in one of the most crowded cities in the world is a reminder that when bad things happen, we are often very much alone. The photographer did not put down his camera and attempt to intervene, but no one else on that platform set aside their fears and chose to act, either. And that indifference to the misery and peril of others is not restricted to that platform, or this city, or this country. It is widespread and endemic, an ugly fact about much of the world.
3. The fear evoked by the photo is primal, the stuff of horrid fairy tales. New Yorkers will see it in acutely personal ways. Subways are a quotidian aspect of life here, but with their close quarters and hurtling trains, the platforms are also potential kill boxes. Does that big scary homeless guy want a quarter or does he want to push me off this platform? More generally, out in the world, public spaces have become fraught. Movie theaters, workplaces and college campuses are common areas that can, and do, become wholesale crime scenes.”
Or “Is that big scary homeless guy a genuine Shoeless Joe or just a con man?”
“4. The image is a kind of crucible of self-analysis. Never mind what the photographer did, what would we do? In that sudden moment, our base impulses emerge. Photographers shoot, heroes declare, and most of us cower. We are not soldiers, expected to engage in selfless acts that trump survival instincts. We are civilians and if called to duty, who among us will accept? (I couldn’t help but think of the four friends who perished in the roiling waters of upstate New York’s Split Rock Falls in 2003, after one slipped in and the others, one by one, tried to save him.)
In the Aurora, Colo., movie shooting incident, some died while shielding others. And it is highly likely that others scrambled over smaller or slower people to flee. The other reason people can’t resist looking (and wish to unsee once they do)? That train is coming for all of us, one way or another. Death comes on its own schedule and we won’t know our time is up until the light of an oncoming train manifests itself.”
How’s about the upcoming Oscar Campaign schedule for the film those moviegoers died trying to see?
“5. The tabloid values that mark modern news media existence work fine when a celebrity tips over or a rich perpetrator is caught red-handed, but not so much when death is imminent. I’m not immune to the blunt, dirty pleasure of a well-executed tabloid cover, but there were many other images to choose from. Never mind the agency of the photo – it doesn’t matter whether the photographer was using his flash to warn, as he suggested, or documenting the death of a man – once it is the can, it should have stayed there.”
Well that’s what the U.S. government thinks about THIS.
Thanks to Wikileaks it didn’t “stay there.”
Or are you sorry it’s up on YouTube ?
“Instead, The New York Post milked the death of someone for maximum commercial effect, with a full-page photo inside of his frozen helplessness, replete with helpful pointers to show the train bearing down and, on the Web, a video about the photographer’s experience that was a kind of slow-motion deconstruction. The marginal civic good served by the story – watch yourself on the subway platform – could have been performed in far more honorable ways. He ended up run over twice.”
The “second time” being metaphorical, aren’t you pushing things a tad Mr. Carr?
“6. It’s not always simple. When a colleague at The Times jumped from our old building in 2002, The Post ran a photo of the building with a dotted line indicating his descent. People at our shop were appalled, but I found myself in the minority. His act was a very public one, he apparently wanted to send a message, and The Post was merely serving as a conduit. And when The New York Times came under fire in August for running on our Web site an extremely graphic photo of a victim in the Empire State Building shooting, I thought it was appropriate at the time. The victim was not recognizable and the blood that ran from him was a reminder that, unlike the way it is portrayed on television, gun crime is extremely violent. But his family was livid and I wonder how I would have felt if I had known him.”
Six of one half a dozen of the other.
“Soon enough, new boundaries will be tested. In an era when most people have a camera in their hand or pocket, mass shootings will be memorialized on cellphone videos and ubiquitous security cameras will dish up fresh horrors. I’d like to think that the people’s right to know will be leavened by the people’s right to live in a world where mayhem is not a commodity.”
Billy Wilder had the last word on this form of “Commodity Capitalism” back in 1951
My favorite heroin addict will sing us out.