Sept. 4, 2009 -- 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."
Gates Requested AP to Not Distribute Graphic Photo of Marine
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."
Paul Colford, AP's director of media relations, said he only had anecdotal information about the photo's use by media outlets and said there is "no immediate register to measure its use -- that material accumulates over time."
The AP article described that it had sent a reporter to have Bernard's father review the photos and that he had asked them not to distribute the photo in question because it would be disrespectful to his memory. He reiterated his displeasure in a follow-on phone conversation this week.
AP Defends Distribution of Photo
AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski said in the article, "We understand Mr. Bernard's anguish. We believe this image is part of the history of this war. The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice."
"He said Bernard's death shows 'his sacrifice for his country. Our story and photos report on him and his last hours respectfully and in accordance with military regulations surrounding journalists embedded with U.S. forces.'"
The AP reported that it waited until after Bernard's burial on Aug. 24 to distribute its story and pictures.
News organizations seemed divided over whether to use the photo, with some explaining to their readers and viewers the reasoning behind their decision.
In a posting on its Web site, WMTW, the ABC affiliate in Bernard's hometown in Portland, Maine, explained they were refraining from running the photo on its newscasts or its Web site. "The picture is extremely graphic which is why News 8 and WMTW.com made the decision not to show it," said an article describing the AP's distribution of the photograph.
The Portland Press Herald ran the AP's package without the photo in question explaining to its readers in a small sidebar that "running the photo would be in poor taste."
However, the Honolulu Star Bulletin, a newspaper in Hawaii where Bernard's unit was based, did publish the photo as part of the AP's package in both its printed and online versions.
Another newspaper that chose to run the photo, The Intelligencer from Wheeling, W.Va., explained in an editorial that it had decided to run the photo after "hours of debate and, yes, searching of our own hearts."
The editorial explained the photo's publication was not intended as "sensationalism" or with any disrespect to Bernard or his family, but that, "Too often, we fear, some Americans see only the statistics, the casualty counts released by the Department of Defense. We believe it is important for all of us to understand that behind the numbers are real men and women, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice, for us."
AP spokesman Paul Colford told ABCNews that leaving the choice to editors is "how the system is designed to work" and that the photos were circulated early enough Thursday so that the news agency's hundreds of media clients "had the fullness of the day whether to decide to use the photo or not as they saw fit."