Defense Secretary Robert Gates personally lobbied the Associated Press in an unsuccessful bid that the news agency honor a family's wish that it not distribute a graphic photograph showing the final moments of their son's life after the marine had been mortally wounded in a firefight in Afghanistan.
The photo shows 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard of New Portland, Maine, being helped by squadmates shortly after suffering severe leg injuries in a Taliban ambush in southern Afghanistan in mid-August. He was evacuated to a field hospital where he later died on the operating table.
Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson was embedded with Bernard's squad at the time of the attack and caught the graphic image as it happened. The photo was included as part of a package sent to AP clients that included photos of Bernard's unit on patrol taken shortly before the attack and of a memorial service after his death.
An AP article accompanying the photo's release reported how the agency had reached its decision to distribute the photo after much reflection, but that ultimately the image conveyed, "the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it."
The article quotes Santiago Lyon, the director of photography for AP, as saying, "AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."
In a letter to Associated Press President and CEO Thomas Curley, Gates said he was asking the AP to reconsider its decision to distribute the photo "in the strongest of terms" and called the decision "appalling" and lacking in "common decency."
Gates continued, "I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard's death has caused his family. Why your organization would purposefully defy the family's wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right -- but judgment and common decency."
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates had also telephoned Curley on Thursday to urge him to reconsider and told him, "I am begging you to defer to the wishes of the family. This will cause them great pain. "
Morrell said Curley replied that he would reconvene his editors and make them aware of Gates' concerns. He later notified the Pentagon that the AP would update its Editors Note to reflect Gates' phone call so clients could factor that information into their decision-making.
When Gates was relayed this message, Morrell said he was "extremely disappointed with their poor judgment and the fact that they did not adhere to the wishes of the family."
Morrell added that this morning the Pentagon provided Gates with an assessment that "the overwhelming preponderance of news organizations had used good judgment and not run the photos." He described Gates as being pleased to hear that though he was "disappointed that a very few did publish it."