By Omission, Not Commission

NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbado looked visibly shaken this afternoon when he spoke on MSNBC with Alison Stewart. It’s no wonder. He had just filmed the chaos at the New Orleans convention center where hundreds of people had been, by his account, dumped and abandoned over the past four days.

Babies were becoming dehydrated and dying. Old people in wheelchairs were wasting away. The sick were not getting their treatments. Neither the police nor the National Guard nor clean water nor food was anywhere to be found. The only vaguely official personage who had come to visit these forlorn, and now angry, people was Harry Connick Jr.

Zumbado captured their rage and desperation.

Stewart asked him if he’d ever seen anything like this in his career. Zumbado answered:

I can’t put it into words the amount of destruction that is in this city and how these people are coping. They are just left behind. There is nothing offered to them. No water, no ice, no C-rations, nothing, for the last four days.

They were told to go to the convention center. They did, they’ve been behaving. It’s unbelievable how organized they are, how supportive they are of each other. They have not started any melees, any riots … they just want food and support. And what I saw there I’ve never seen in this country.

He went on to describe some of the scenes he had witnessed: “The sanitation was unbelievable. The stench in there … was unbelievable. Dead people around the walls of the convention center, laying in the middle of the street in their dying chairs where they died, right there on their lawn chair. They were just covered up in their wheelchair, covered up, laying there for dead. Babies, two babies dehydrated and died. I’m telling you, I couldn’t take it.”

Then followed an extraordinary exchange — not included in the transcript of the interview on MSNBC’s Web site — well worth noting. Stewart mentioned that many of the images Zumbado had shot of the dead and dying “couldn’t” be run on the air. Zumbado added that there was much more footage that he could have shot but did not, precisely because he knew it would never make it on the air.

It was clear that the footage that we did see was whatever material had made it through the network’s own filter of self-censorship. As horrifying as the images shown were, they didn’t come close to Zumbado’s own stunned and graphic descriptions of what he had seen.

So it is that we come to an eternal debate among journalists on the scene of such horrors as those occurring at the New Orleans’ convention center. How much of the dead and dying can we — or should we — show on television? (Our own dead, that is; we don’t seem to have the same problem with Iraqi corpses.)

Obviously, no one wants to view, say, the death rattle of an infant perishing from dehydration. But if the nightmare unfolding right now at the convention center is the result of negligence, or even of triage being practiced by government responders, and if a little graphic film might arouse both those responders and the larger citizenry, is not that a public service?

Someone, or several someones, made the decision to leave those people dying at the convention center to their own devices. Should the television press let those persons off the hook — in order to spare a queasy public from graphic images?

We know our own answer to that question.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.