- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

How close should journalists get to thugs and murderers to get the facts? It’s a question that has troubled editors for a long time, but a question that isn’t asked nearly often enough. The question takes on new significance in an age of terrorism. We revisit it now that Columbia University has awarded a Pulitzer Prize to an anonymous Associated Press photographer whose connections to terrorists yielded an extraordinary scoop.

By the rules, the AP did nothing wrong. But in a heated exchange with critics who saw the photographs as complicity with terror, an AP spokesman explained that the photographer was “not ‘embedded’ ” with terrorists and did “not have to swear allegiance” to them. This is not very persuasive, but it says something important about the journalistic rules.

The photograph ran in newspapers across the country, including The Washington Times, in December. The director of photography for this newspaper, in fact, acting in his independent capacity, was one of the five judges who recommended awarding the prize. The photograph was riveting. It depicted the murder of three Iraqi election workers in broad daylight in the middle of Baghdad’s busy Haifa Street. In it, an unidentified gunman stands unmasked. The slumped body of his first victim lies at his feet. To the right, a soon-to-be dead victim kneels and faces the oncoming traffic.

In a climate of doomsaying about the January elections, the image resonated with American and European critics of the war. The photograph seemed to confirm fears about where the Iraq insurgency was heading (as well as offering further evidence of the depravity of the insurgents). By depicting a brazen terrorist murdering helpless Iraqi democrats, it put a new face on the Baghdad violence.

That, as it turned out, was precisely what the assailants intended. It was no accident that the AP photographer was present to record the act. The assailants had spun him into covering it.

A person at the Associated Press with knowledge of the circumstances explained to Salon, the Internet magazine, that in such a case an unknown informer close to the assailants would have tipped off the AP photographer of an approaching newsworthy event on Haifa Street. The photographer would not be told that the event was to be an execution. But he would have been told by those close to the attackers that something worth photographing would occur there. So, as competent journalists do, the photographer went to cover it. We can only presume that the photographer would not have willingly abetted the extrajudicial execution of Iraqi election workers. Under American law, the term for that is felony murder.

Was the Associated Press guilty of complicity with terrorists the way its critics insist? To be sure, there were plenty of unanswered questions. Foremost was the reason why the AP could not give at least the affiliation of the assailants. In the caption that went out over the wires on Dec. 19, no identification was given. Were they Ba’athists? Or were they Sunni insurgents, numbers of which were known to operate in and around Haifa Street? Such information was almost certainly known by the photographer. That photographer, as AP spokesman Jack Stokes later confirmed, was one of several Iraqi employees whose “family and tribal relations give them access that would not be available to Western photographers, or even Iraqi photographers who are not from the area.” So, with such a photographer, surely the AP could say reasonably who the assailants were. But it didn’t.

But complicity? Only a willingness to doubt the good faith of the AP as a newsgathering organization would lead to that conclusion. Newspaper reporters and photographers regularly deal with unsavory characters to get the story or the photograph; this was a case where the photographer went after the photograph and turned up a horror. Did he go fishing for it? There’s no evidence of that.

The terrorists who murder election workers know how the Western media works. They know that a local stringer could be used to convey a gruesome message to the world. They also know that the stringer can be trusted not to reveal sensitive information.

Maybe that implies something unsavory about the journalistic rules. We would find it unacceptable if the Associated Press, a cooperative of which this newspaper is a member, were to cultivate ties to al Qaeda like those Al Jazeera cultivates with terrorists. The difference is one of degree (but an important degree). Should bearers of the openness and the free exchange of information that enable free societies to stay that way consort with people who would destroy those societies? If not, then should we change the rules in the age of terrorism? These are questions worth thinking about.

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