Bloggers Enraged By Times Images of Soldier’s Death

The paper's coverage of a dying American soldier is sparking outrage from his family, the Army, and Web scribes.

The American media have been publishing images of the bloodshed in Iraq for almost four years, but a recent New York Times Web video and photograph of a dying American soldier is sparking outrage from the soldier’s family and the Army, who are accusing the Times of going too far in its coverage of the war.

On Monday, the Times published a story about a Jan. 24 patrol on Haifa Street in Baghdad that turned deadly when Army Staff Sergeant Hector Leija was shot in the head.

Leija was canvassing an apartment with a team of American and Iraqi soldiers when he was wounded. A photo on the paper’s Web site shows the kitchen floor of the apartment smeared with Leija’s blood, while a Web video that accompanies the article shows fellow soldiers placing Leija’s body on a stretcher and carrying him out of the house. He died hours later.

Reporter Damien Cave and photographer Robert Nickelsberg, who covered the story for the paper, had their status as embedded journalists suspended on Tuesday. Military officials said the publication of the images violated a signed agreement that prohibits the media from showing photos or videos of wounded soldiers without official consent.

Leija’s immediate family has declined to comment. But Leija’s cousin, who has not seen the images, told the Houston Chronicle she was appalled that the Times would publish images that would only exacerbate the family’s grief.

The photos and video of Leija’s final hours are fueling a debate about what is appropriate for journalists to cover during wartime.

Woman Honor Thyself was outraged by the Times’ decision to run the photos. She writes, “These are the same ‘lovers of terrorists’ journalists who refuse to publish the Muuuuuuuuuha-mad cartoons for fear of ‘offending someone’! But this indignity to one of our own boys is condoned?”

Pamela Geller-Oshry agrees. “Is there any depth these bottom-feeding America haters will not stoop to advance their defeatest agenda?” she asks, lashing out at the Times for “running video of a dying soldier, a dying soldier! What is holier? But NO IMAGES OF 9/11! TOO GRAPHIC! HIDE THE FLYING BURNING BODIES BY THE HUNDREDS! Hide the horror of what the declared enemy wrought on innocent Americans. It will be me and others in the blogosphere raising our paddles when this and papers like them liquidate and go at auction.”

Defending the newspaper’s publication of the images, Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira said this: “The Times is extremely sensitive to the loss suffered by families when loved ones are killed in Iraq. We have tried to write about the inevitable loss with extreme compassion.” Chira added that a Times reporter in Baghdad made an effort to notify Leija’s family about the images, despite a specific request from the Army that the press avoid direct contact with grieving military families.

Meantime, some bloggers are supporting the Times’ decision, arguing that the American people need to understand the costs of the war. “Hundreds of thousands are dying because of our elected officials yet the electorate will never see what is done in their names,” writes Preston, responding to a blog post at UrbanGrounds. “We have the most uninformed citizenry in the world when it comes to what our nation does abroad.”

Responding to Woman Honor Thyself’s post, Michael says that the Times story details the valor of America soldiers, but may have been insensitive to Leija’s family. “I don’t have a problem with the story per se; there was courage and sadness; the soldiers were in a tough situation and had to find a solution; the medic who retrieved the gear did a brave thing,” he writes. “These were American soldiers, shining in adversity. I wish the story had told that better.”

As part of an agreement with the Army, the Times will send a letter of explanation to Leija’s family, which will also express regret for any distress the family suffered. But the Times is also standing by its story: “We believe the article was a portrait of Sgt. Leija’s courage under fire and showed how much his men respected and cared for him.”

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Satta Sarmah is a CJR intern.