Before Bryan Preston and I embedded at FOB Justice, we had to read and agree to a clear set of ground rules, including this one:
Apparently, the NYTimes didn’t think the rules applied to them. Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle blew the whistle on an appalling violation of those rules by Times reporters, who posted a photograph and videotape of a Texas soldier dying in Iraq–before the family had been notified:
A photograph and videotape of a Texas soldier dying in Iraq published by the New York Times have triggered anger from his relatives and Army colleagues and revived a long-standing debate about which images of war are proper to show.
The journalists involved, Times reporter Damien Cave and Getty Images photographer Robert Nickelsberg, working for the Times, had their status as so-called embedded journalists suspended Tuesday by the Army corps in Baghdad, military officials said, because they violated a signed agreement not to publish photos or video of any wounded soldiers without official consent.
New York Times foreign editor Susan Chira said Tuesday night that the newspaper initially did not contact the family of Army Staff Sgt. Hector Leija about the images because of a specific request from the Army to avoid such a direct contact.
“The Times is extremely sensitive to the loss suffered by families when loved ones are killed in Iraq,” Chira said. “We have tried to write about the inevitable loss with extreme compassion.”
She said that after the newspaper account, with a photograph of the soldier, was published Monday, a Times reporter in Baghdad made indirect efforts to tell the family of the video release later that day. The video was still available for viewing on the Times’ Web site Tuesday night, when the newspaper notified clients of its photo service that the photograph at issue was no longer available and should be eliminated from any archives.
The Times is telling a very different account of what happened than others:
The Times said it planned to discuss the issue today with Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Force Iraq.
Chira also said she had been told by the reporter in Baghdad that he had reached out to two people with Texas connections to act as intermediaries to alert the family that a video was going to be posted. They were Kathy Travis, a press aide to Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, and Principal Gilbert Galvan of Raymondville High School.
Travis had a different account.
“Whoa, that isn’t what happened,” she said Tuesday night in a telephone interview. “The reporter called me late Monday afternoon and said he understood that the family was upset and that he wanted us to know that he had the utmost respect for the soldier and wanted us to let the family know that.”
Galvan said a New York Times reporter called Monday, saying he could not reach Leija’s relatives and asking Galvan to notify the family of the story and the impending release of the video.
Galvan said he went to the Leijas’ house and relayed the message. “They looked upset,” he said.
The damage has been done:
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Lobeck, serving as the Army’s casualty assistance officer with Leija’s family in Texas, said seeing the images of Leija on the Internet was very upsetting to the relatives.
“Oh God, they shouldn’t have published a picture like that,” Leija’s cousin Tina Guerrero, who had not seen the images but was aghast about them anyway, told the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday in Raymondville. She said the images would be especially hurtful to the soldier’s parents, Domingo and Manuela Leija, who have remained in the family’s home on the edge of town. ”It’s going to devastate them,” Guerrero said. ”They’re having enough pain dealing with the death of their son.”
As of this morning, the story and video identifying Leija are still featured on the NYTimes website:
The New York Times will express regret for hurting the feelings of the family of a Texas soldier after publishing a photograph and a video showing him as he lay dying in Baghdad.
The letter is part of an agreement reached Wednesday between the Army and the Times to resolve a controversy about the use of images of Staff Sgt. Hector Leija without his consent.
“The New York Times agreed to write a letter to Sgt. Leija’s family explaining the process we go through to notify families and why we run the articles and photographs we do, and expressing regret that the family suffered distress,” said a statement from the newspaper.
The decision came after a telephone discussion Wednesday between Times executive editor Bill Keller in New York, and Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq.
Buried at the bottom of the Chronicle article is a troublesome detail:
An Army officer in Baghdad said that as a result of the conversation between the top newspaper editor and the commander, some journalists for the newspaper still would be allowed to embed with military units while the pair involved in the Leija story would not.
But a Times spokeswoman said the paper left the meeting with a different impression, saying a Times representative and military officials will meet to discuss embedding rules and that there was no word of any journalists losing the privilege.
So will the paper suffer any consequences for violating the rules and inflicting harm on the family or not?
Army Staff Sgt. Hector Leija’s MySpace page is here. His motto was “Bound by Honor”–a foreign concept at the NYTimes.