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Images of POWs and the Dead Pose a Dilemma for the Media

March 24, 2003|Josh Getlin and Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — As an Iraqi television videotape showing captured and slain American soldiers was broadcast throughout the world Sunday, U.S. networks wrestling with the propriety of airing the often-grisly sequence showed only snippets or still photos.

Most networks said they were refusing to show the video out of respect for the families of the prisoners of war, only some of whom had been notified.

But ABC aired a still photo from the interrogation of one soldier, identified as Spc. Joseph Hudson, after his mother saw the video broadcast by Al Jazeera, a pan-Arab television network, on a Filipino-language station to which she subscribes and publicly identified herself. NBC did the same late Sunday.

"We aired video of Spc. Hudson because we knew his family was aware of his capture," NBC said in a statement. "We chose to show parts of this video because this is not a silent, faceless victim. He is an American soldier whose rights ... were violated. There was other material we decided not to broadcast because it was gruesome and exploitive."

The footage sparked soul-searching in media circles and resurrected an age-old debate: Are the media obligated to report the news, no matter how horrific, or should they be mindful -- especially in time of war -- of families' sensitivities and the impact of what might be seen as propaganda?

On ABC, news anchors Charles Gibson and Ted Koppel voiced differing views. "Any time that you show bodies, it is simply disrespectful," Gibson said. "The Geneva Convention [says] prisoners of war must, at all times, be protected, particularly against acts of violence and public curiosity."

Koppel, however, said: "We have shown dead bodies often over the years, going all the way back to Vietnam. Both with enemy dead and the dead of Americans. What is done ... the faces are never shown. You don't want to have families at home learning of the death or the injury of a loved one by seeing it on television."

News of the Iraqi video was announced on American TV stations Sunday morning. In the first minutes after it became available, CBS showed a brief portion of the interrogation of one soldier; CNN showed a photo of the dead Americans who were unidentifiable. At least five soldiers were believed to have been captured in an ambush near the city of Nasiriyah.

Still photos of the captured soldiers and at least one of the bodies also appeared on the Web sites of several newspapers, including The Times.

But then most media outlets yanked virtually all images after U.S. military officials in Qatar and the Pentagon condemned Al Jazeera for having broadcast the footage. Networks were asked to hold off on airing the tape until families were notified.

In one segment, the bloodied corpse of a soldier is shown on the ground. Other bodies are shown, with bullet wounds to the head. Subsequently, five Americans -- members of an Army maintenance company identified by their names and home states -- are interrogated by their captors.

In the middle of the video, the voice of an Iraqi commentator says: "Ladies and gentlemen, you are now witnessing a group of POWs from the American and British troops.

"These are the ones trying to invade Iraq, but they were faced with our courageous troops ... and here they are, shamed and defeated."

"You've come to kill Iraqi people?" the interviewer asked a pale, bespectacled private first class from Kansas.

Surrounded by a group of Iraqi officials, the prisoner appeared intimidated.

"I come to fix broke stuff," he said. "I'm told to shoot only if I'm shot at." Later, he took short breaths as he explained, "They don't bother me, I don't bother them."

"Why did you come from Texas to Iraq?" the interviewer asked another. "I follow orders," the soldier replied.

Al Jazeera led its evening news with the Iraqi footage, but an announcer told its audience beforehand: "We are warning the viewers and apologizing for the content of this footage, which is truly horrific."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a CNN interview, said the Iraqi video violated the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners of war, specifically provisions banning the exposure of prisoners to "public curiosity" or humiliation: "Needless to say, television networks that carry such pictures are, I would say, doing something that's unfortunate."

Earlier, on CBS, he said that Al Jazeera "is not a perfect instrument of communication. It is obviously part of Iraqi propaganda and responding to Iraqi propaganda."

In Qatar, U.S. Lt. Gen. John Abizaid told a news briefing that "the showing of these pictures is absolutely unacceptable." He admonished an Al Jazeera correspondent for the network's decision to air the footage.

The Qatar-based network did not return several calls for comment, either in the Middle East or in its Washington offices.

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