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Too Close For Comfort?

(AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
The folks over at Little Green Footballs – in a post subtly titled "The Media Are the Enemy" – note that The New York Times printed a picture in which "[a] sniper loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr fires towards U.S. positions in the cemetery in Najaf, Iraq." To get the picture, LGF notes, "Times photographer Joao Silva was right there in the room" with the sniper.

Times assistant managing editor for photography Michele McNally wrote that the fact that Silva was "[r]ight there with the Mahdi army" showed "[i]ncredible courage."

Jeff Goldstein ain't having it. He writes: "Incredible courage? Well, far be it for me to question such self-congratulatory enthusiasm, but it seems to me that actual 'incredible courage' would have entailed, say, Joao Silva getting word to U . S . troops, or bumrushing the sniper and beating him unconscious with a heavy telephoto lens."

Asks an outraged Patterico: "If NYT editors had learned of the 9/11 plot beforehand, would they have warned the government? Or would they have set up videocameras to get the best possible shot of the first plane hitting the tower?"

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Stephen Spruiell has a more even-handed take. "Do we benefit from having someone, even someone as morally repugnant as this fellow, so close to the insurgency that he can report on it?," he asks. "Of course we would prefer if he did not refer to terrorists as martyrs, but... should we always object when any journalist infiltrates the insurgency?"

It's not easy to make steadfast rules when it comes to situations like this. There is, undoubtedly, a benefit to having journalists develop relationships with an enemy – it means that news consumers can get fuller picture of the whole story. At the same time, where do you draw the line? I think we would all agree that if a reporter knew of plans for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in advance, his duty would be to try and stop it, not simply stand by and get the story.

A journalist can often justify standing by as the people he is covering take action that the journalist finds morally repugnant. The action would presumably be taken even if the journalist wasn't there, and by documenting it he provides a record that would otherwise not exist. But there are limits to this way of thinking, and this particular situation – in which a sniper seemed to have an American soldier in his sites – doesn't offer easy answers. Put yourself in the photographer's position: Would you try and stop that sniper, even if it meant sacrificing your claims of objectivity, your access – and, quite possibly, your life?

Ultimately, I don't see how you could. Being a neutral observer of war means stomaching some pretty horrible things and resisting the urge to take action as a result of what you've seen. Press accounts are the best means we have to cut through the fog of war, and when journalists begin acting like soldiers they sacrifice their essential function. That said, there are larger moral obligations than those of journalism, and it is depressingly easy to think of situations in which a journalist, having discovered that something horrible and large-scale was in the works, has an obligation to act.

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