Thursday, September 10, 2009

Crossing the line

I got an earful from my brother this morning regarding “what passes for news these days.”

He was peeved about the new focus of the remarkable story of Melanie Oudin, the 17-year-old phenom who knocked over, one after another, a murderers row of Russian aces on her way to the U.S. Open Tennis quarterfinals, where she fell to 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki.

Someone dug up court filings on divorce proceedings between Oudin’s parents and aired the whole sorry tale, which was dutifully reported by media from the sports world and beyond. Tabloid fodder from heaven, right?

“Here’s the good news,” my brother said. “You’ve become a celebrity because of an exceptional tennis performance. Here’s the bad news: You’re a celebrity; and this is how we treat celebrities.”

As is often the case, my brother and I were thinking the same thought. My reaction to seeing this story splashed all over the Internet was, why does this girl deserve to have her family’s dirty laundry hung out for everyone in the world to pick over?

The answer is, she doesn’t. I realize that this is spitting into the ocean, but there is no reason that any of us need to know about this. It’s mere titillation.

Family problems — divorce, infidelity, illness — are well within a zone of privacy that should be respected. Politicians and some other public figures should be exempted because there is an issue of public trust involved, but even there some circumspection is in order. We don’t need the feeding frenzy that accompanies these things, from Bill Clinton to Mark Sanford to John Edwards.

Thinking about the Oudin situation led me back to another, more significant, question of drawing lines that I’ve been thinking a lot about for the past few days: the publishing of an AP photo of the dying of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard in Afghanistan (after his family had asked AP not to distribute the photo).

That decision by AP drew stinging rebukes for insensitivity.

I’m of two minds about this. I don’t think AP should have distributed this particular photo, especially in the face of an express request from the family not to do so. Showing the young man in his last, dying agony caused too much pain to his loved ones.

But by the same token, we are too inclined to sanitize ugly realities. We don’t need to know about someone’s messy marital situation. But we do need to face up to the reality of warfare that is being carried out in our name and on our dime.

If we don’t have to look, we don’t have to face up. (That’s not a political statement, by the way. Whether you support a policy or not, it’s important to grapple with the consequences, especially when they are literally life-and-death).

“Just tell us about it; we don’t need to see it.”

I’ve heard that fairly often in response to photos of accidents and the like. I don’t buy it. Much as it pains a word guy to say it, images are more powerful than words at conveying stark realities.
I’ve seen (and shot) my share of bad accidents. Seeing what I have seen has made a significant impact on my driving habits. Not the rational understanding of the dangers of the highway — an emotional response to seeing what happens when a couple of tons of steel hits something at speed.

That’s got value. That’s a need-to-know thing. We all know that that damned Barclay Drive/Highway 20 intersection is dangerous. Seeing twisted steel all over the road makes you actually slow down and look when. Does me, anyway. Every time.

Sensitivity to victims and family members is important. You don’t necessarily need to show the face of fear and pain to get the point across. How graphic is too graphic? Is it the ability to put a name to a face the tipping point?

There is an iconic photograph of a terrified young Vietnamese girl running down a road from a napalm attack on her village that brought home powerfully the impact of that conflict on civilians. Why is it OK to run that and not a shot of a dying U.S. Marine?

How about the famous shot of the South Vietnamese officer executing a Viet Cong guerrilla during Tet?

I think AP stepped over the line, but I can't say in a hard-and-fast way where the line lies.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Jim,

    A additional note:
    When Oudin needed to change hotels, because she hadn't booked the Marriott for the second week of the Open, for obvious reasons, the headlines proclaimed that she was "booted" from her hotel. Sensationalism at its best.

    In contemporary journalism, "The Line" that you speak of has become so blurred, so obscured and ill-defined, that it is nigh impossible to know if and when it has been crossed. The sad part is, journalistic integrity is pretty much passe in our culture, and probably regarded as a odd, anachronistic remnant of a bygone era. Your use of the word titillation was significant, in that titillation seems to be what the majority of Americans seems to expect the news media to provide.

    In-depth, cerebral, objective reporting, with a bias for newsworthy content, won't keep most people's attention long enough to gain support of the advertisers. Pseudo celebrities feed beauty pageant contestants loaded, agenda-based questions, and then pillory her when she answers honestly. It becomes "big news". Here in LA, TV weather reporters and traffic reporters are expected to have big cans and dress like Vanna White.

    I don't suppose the media should be held completely accountable for pandering to the lowest common denominator, because that seems to play to a majority opinion. However, they do have a collective responsibility to serve the public interest in a higher fashion, regardless what the public is interested in.

    Your brother

  2. Jim,
    Excellent column. I would even go so far as to give politicians a pass on the personal life as long as they have never tried to run on or legislate moral superiority. Funny how so many of the moralists seem to have trouble in their own personal lives.

    As to the photo, the AP was dead wrong on that one. They should have honored the wishes of the soldier's family. It isn't like there aren't plenty of other opportunities to show the horror of war to the people here who sent our young men and women off to die.