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PBS Ombudsman

A Tough but Proper Decision

The long-running PBS documentary series Frontline aired its new season premiere this week, an hour-long look at the now eight-year-old war in Afghanistan that carried the controversial title, "Obama's War." I'll come back to that title a little further down but the name of the program is not what I'm referring to in the headline of this column as "A Tough but Proper Decision."

Rather, the tough but proper decision, in my view, was to include footage of the fatal wounding of 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Charles S. Sharp early in July while on patrol with his company in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan that is one of the most dangerous areas in the country. The footage appears just minutes into the film as freelance photographer Danfung Dennis, joined later by veteran Frontline correspondent Martin Smith, travels with the Marine company that was part of a big build-up of U.S. forces there this past summer.

In mid-September, a relative of the young Marine wrote to me expressing "concern" about the footage to be used in the then forthcoming documentary and its effect on the family. I passed this along to Frontline producers at PBS-member station WGBH in Boston, and this was followed up, according to a chronology supplied by Frontline producers, by a series of contacts between the producers and the family.

The chronology also lists earlier contacts in August with Marine Corps press officers in Afghanistan and at Camp Lejeune, NC, the home-base for Sharp's unit, informing them that Frontline "would like to air the Sharp footage." Officers in Afghanistan, the chronology reports, expressed no opinion about the footage and at Camp Lejeune, public affairs officials said they had informed the family about Frontline's intentions and "there was no indication of any objection from the family," according to the chronology.

Then on Tuesday, just hours before the Frontline broadcast was to be aired, I received a copy of a letter sent to PBS President and CEO, Paula Kerger, from Marine Corps Col. B. F. Salas, Director of Public Affairs.

Here, in part, Is What Col. Salas Wrote:

"I wanted to write and urge you to remove the explicit imagery of Marine Lance Corporal Seth Sharp in his dying moments from the PBS report 'Obama's War.' It is without question the right of PBS under the rules of embedded journalism to include this imagery in this program and distribute it globally and inform the public. There is no disagreement on this count, and we in the Marine Corps' public affairs community share your mission.

"However, I would appeal to you on the basis of journalistic good taste not to include this imagery. The media does not show graphic imagery of drunken driving victims, much less use material accompanied by their name that shows their face and the horrible circumstances of their vulnerable moment of loss. This should be the standard applied also to this case. War and combat operations like the one Lance Cpl. Sharp and his unit were involved with involve daily exposure to horrors and abject terror that is unspeakable.

"America counts on journalists to inform them accurately of these realities, and to convey in some measure by their reporting, the courage of those citizens who seek to protect the innocent and defend our interests. An accomplished storyteller can inform us without resorting to graphic imagery or what might be termed 'combat pornography.'"

Here's Kerger's Reply, in part:

"The footage documenting the mortal wounding of Marine Lance Corporal Seth Sharp is an extraordinary reminder to viewers of the remarkable sacrifices made by American troops and exemplifies the formidable challenges on the ground in Afghanistan at a time when coverage of the war is dominated by policy arguments in Washington.

"These images were captured in accordance with the military's guidelines for embedded media, which read, 'Photography from a respectful distance or from angles at which a casualty cannot be identified is permissible.' In the battle scene, the camera is not intrusive; it stays at a respectful distance, and Lance Cpl. Sharp's face is completely obscured.

"On October 13, Rick Sharp, Lance Cpl. Sharp's father, appeared on 'The Takeaway,' a Public Radio International program, and said he did not object to this footage being shown. When asked why, he answered, 'Just so the story could be seen of what our men and women are having to do to give us our freedom, the stuff that we take for granted every day, that it's not an easy job that they're having to do.'

"In telling its story of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 'Obama's War' is meant to honor all the men and women who are risking their lives each day and to give the American public a sense of their exceptional courage. I greatly appreciate your sharing your concerns with me, and I thank you for your service to our nation."

My Thoughts

I'm with PBS on this. The showing of mortally wounded American servicemen and women has been a vexing problem for news organizations for a long time. Just last month, there was considerable controversy over a photo of another young Marine fatally shot in combat in Afghanistan that was distributed by the Associated Press. Defense Secretary Robert Gates even got involved in that one personally and publicly. Some news organizations ran it, others did not. Some others published it only online rather than in print editions. My colleague and fellow ombudsman at Stars and Stripes, Mark Prendergast, wrote what I felt was a thoughtful column about that episode at the time.

Col. Salas, in his letter, agrees that the Frontline correspondents were acting under established rules, but he makes his appeal on the basis of "journalistic good taste." I don't agree with that, and I think Salas's use of the phrase "combat pornography" is not helpful or appropriate. I don't think there is any way that you could put Frontline's treatment of this tragic moment in that category. As a viewer, one suffers for the terrible fate of this young Marine three months ago. But you don't see his face and wouldn't know his name except for his buddies calling out his nickname in an effort to keep him struggling to survive long enough to get him evacuated.

Death is part of the story of war and, if anything, America's battles in the last 15 years have been far too sanitized, in my opinion. Those battles, ever since President Nixon moved the country to an all volunteer force in 1973, have been fought by a tiny fraction of Americans. The idea that your son or daughter might have to serve has been taken off the table for the overwhelming majority of American families, shielding almost all of us from the real costs and emotions of the battlefield.

In the first Gulf War in 1991, and in smaller earlier skirmishes in Grenada and Panama in the 1980s, U.S. defense and military officials did their best to keep reporters and photographers from seeing anything, especially at the beginning of these operations. There were rules for many years preventing photographing of returning flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and there has actually been very little photographic record of U.S. combat fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan published in the American press.

Nobody is advocating not playing by the rules of notifying next of kin first, not using visibly identifiable images, and being respectful of families. But just as the military has a serious, and often dangerous role in our society, so do reporters and photographers in recording the wars that our government has committed us to. And it is the news organization's decision whether to publish these.

You can argue about whether the all-volunteer force is a good idea, or whether it is too small, or whether it makes it easier politically to commit troops to battle. Personally, I think it does make it easier. But I don't think the press ought to shy away from recording, in full and with respect, what this means, nor to contribute to further shielding American readers and viewers from the realities of combat.

As for 'Obama's War'

Several viewers in recent weeks, having seen the promotion for the Frontline program, have written to complain about the title. After all, the argument goes, it was President George W. Bush who invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks but who rather quickly switched focus and resources to attacking Iraq, a country that did not attack us, without finishing the job in Afghanistan.

I think that is a valid argument. On the other hand, President Obama has steadily affirmed the importance of the war in Afghanistan and quite recently described it as a "war of necessity." That is a strong term. He has appointed new diplomats and military leaders and adopted a new strategy, and he now faces crucial decisions on the future size of the U.S. military commitment. So I think it is fair to say that it now has become Obama's war and the public generally understands how this has come about, although the documentary falls a bit short when it comes to the history of foreign powers in Afghanistan.

That, however, seems a minor flaw, in my opinion. This struck me as an excellent film, in keeping with Frontline's tradition of strong examinations of frontline issues. As the eighth anniversary of the war came and went, there has been a step-up in reporting from and about Afghanistan in newspapers and on television, which is all to the good.

But this hour-long Frontline exploration struck me as uniquely valuable: solid reporting and analysis on all sides that conveys the almost maddening complexity of any approach; a sizable segment devoted to Pakistan's involvement-without which it is impossible to understand the challenge that the war presents; especially timely because of the decisions now awaiting the president, and the luxury of an hour of uninterrupted, logical presentation that allows one to make more sense of this than you can get by short bursts of reporting elsewhere.

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