The most shocking, and simultaneously compelling, aspect of the Baghdad dispatch in the New York Times this past Monday was its intimate close-up of one soldier’s death. It was impossible not to feel frustrated by the story of Hector Leija, an Army staff sergeant who was struck down by a sniper while on a sweep through the apartments of the once posh Haifa Street. He was killed by a single bullet that came in through a kitchen window. The drama that ensued of getting Leija to a medic and then retrieving his gear, still on the floor of the now lethal kitchen, was captured by the embedded Times reporter, Damien Cave, with all the narrative tautness of a Hemingway short story. A shaky video later posted on the Times Web site further captured the panic of the moment and the despair of men who had lost a beloved leader.
In our estimation it was the closest we have gotten, via journalism, to the troops in battle in recent memory. You could feel their helplessness. And you could feel the ultimate futility of searching an apartment only to vacate it hours later—at the unconscionable price of a human life.
As we mentioned last week, commenting on Cave’s earlier reporting from Iraq, this is what war reporting at its best can do. Put us there. Make us realize the costs and the benefits. This is a war being fought in our name and with our tax dollars, and we need to have as clear a sense of the reality on the ground as possible. It should not be a complete abstraction. Humanizing our soldiers and their difficult task is the most valuable kind of contribution a journalist can make in a war zone. Cave achieved this both in his article and through the visceral immediacy of his video reportage.
But Cave and Robert Nickelsberg, the Getty Images photographer who accompanied him, almost lost their embed status as a result of this story and the images that accompanied it. Even though, in our opinion, nothing in the video or the photograph could be classified as gratuitous—it showed Leija being rushed out on a stretcher and his blood on the floor of the kitchen were he was hit—the sergeant’s family was angered by the Times’s decision to publish them. On top of this, it seems that Cave and Nicklesberg broke one of the fourteen rules all journalists must agree to before being embedded. Rule number eleven states that, “Names, video, identifiable written/oral description or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without service member’s prior written consent.” (Though, as Susan Chira, the Times’s foreign editor, told the Houston Chronicle, “This issue has never been raised before when the New York Times has shown photographs of wounded soldiers.”)
The Houston Chronicle has taken the lead on this story (Leija was from Texas), and Thursday reported that in an arrangement between the Times and the Army, the paper would issue an apology to the family. An Army spokesman at first also said that Cave and Nickelsberg would no longer be able to embed, but in an e-mail Friday from the Times to CJR Daily, the director of public relations told us that the reporter and photographer have not, in fact, lost their embed status.
This is a classic example of the demands that weigh on editors who manage war coverage. How to balance being sensitive to the family of the injured or dead soldier with the need to bring the reality of the war to readers and viewers? The simple answer would be to say that there can be no ironclad rule, that these decisions must be decided case by case. In this instance, we feel that the video and photos were taken at a respectful enough distance, obscuring any truly disturbing images. Add to this the fact that the benefit of having this powerful story told was so great, in terms of our understanding of what is happening in Iraq, and it seems fair to conclude that there shouldn’t have been any second guessing about news judgment here.
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
But there will be other situations such as these, and editors will have to make difficult decisions. It does seem necessary then to stand up for the principle of showing us as much as possible. Leija’s parents lost their son. But it is our country in this war as much as it is theirs, and we need the media to bring us the information, the images, and the context we need to take full measure of the military’s position in Iraq. Otherwise we are blind.