Defending graphic depiction of war

First, the New York Times reporter had a question for UNR journalism students.

“Have you seen these photos?” he asked, holding up the front page of the Times. “Do you think they were a good idea or a bad idea?”

On Thursday, the New York Times ran an Associated Press photo of Iraqis rejoicing under the charred corpses of American civilians who’d been ambushed and killed. In the photo, two bodies hang from a bridge over the Euphrates River outside the town of Falluja, west of Baghdad.

Several UNR students said they thought running the grotesque photo was a good idea. A few disagreed. Reporter Michael Janofsky, a Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Times, said he thought his editors made the right choice.

“Americans should know the truth, however hard that is,” Janofsky said.

The accompanying article included grisly details: “… a boy no older than 10 ground his heel into a burned head. ‘Where is Bush?’ the boy yelled. ‘Let him come here and see this!’ Masked men gathered around him, punching their fists into the air. The streets filled with hundreds of people. ‘Falluja is the graveyard of Americans!’ they chanted.”

Was the slaughter of four civilian contractors, all former U.S. military, another example of senseless violence in a radical region of Iraq? Absolutely. Senseless, but not exactly random. Not if you factor in the number of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S.-led forces in Falluja since war began last year.

A year ago in April, more than a dozen Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. troops during a protest in Falluja, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The publication reports about 100 civilian deaths in Falluja during the past year.

On March 26, according to published reports, U.S. Marines killed 15 Iraqis in Falluja, including several civilians—at least one woman, one child and an Iraqi cameraman working for ABC News.

There are more stories—many hard to confirm.

Also in March, We the Good Guys—who’re supposed to be about freedom of speech and the press—shut down a popular Iraqi newspaper that served as a voice for those who consider American forces as invaders in their land. But I digress.

The Times reporter came to Reno to talk with students and community members as part of a partnership that also distributes free copies of the New York Times on campus.

One student asked where Janofsky went to school. When he replied, “University of Maryland,” a few laughed.

Janofsky shrugged amiably. Yes, it’s true that plagiarizing journalist Jayson Blair, fired from the New York Times, and make-stuff-up journalist Jack Kelley, fired from USA Today, are both Maryland grads.

Maryland has, however, turned out many fine journalists, Janofsky said. Connie Chung was a classmate of Janofsky’s.

“I kind of had a crush on her,” he told students. “She didn’t know who I was.”

Janofsky called Blair talented. “He just had some other demons he couldn’t deal with.” He described reporting a Michael Jackson visit to Capitol Hill last week. “The uproar in Congress … was astonishing.”

Janofsky stressed the critical role of newspapers in a democratic society. A newspaper reporter doesn’t need to write an opinion column to have an impact.

“Just get the facts out,” he said.

One fact irksome to Janofsky is the Bush administration’s no-coverage policy at Dover Air Force Base. Reporters and photographers aren’t allowed to visit as bodies of dead U.S. soldiers (to date, more than 600 killed in Iraq) arrive from overseas.

Janofsky called this “unconscionable.”

“We should be allowed to mourn for these people, to cry for them,” he said. “Without that, war is a videogame.”