The night they received the image, Pledge tells me, editors at the Associated Press’ New York City offices pulled the photo entirely from the wire service, keeping it off the desks of virtually all of America’s newspaper editors. It is unknown precisely how, why, or by whom the AP’s decision was handed down.
Vincent Alabiso, who at the time was the executive photo editor for the AP, later distanced himself from the wire service’s decision. In 2003, he admitted to American Journalism Review that the photograph ought to have gone out on the wire and argued that such a photo would today.
Yet the AP’s reaction was repeated at Time and Life. Both magazines briefly considered the photo, unofficially referred to as “Crispy,” for publication. The photo departments even drew up layout plans. Time, which had sent Jarecke to the Gulf in the first place, planned for the image to accompany a story about the Highway of Death.
“We fought like crazy to get our editors to let us publish that picture,” former photo director Michele Stephenson tells me. As she recalls, Henry Muller, the managing editor, told her, “Time is a family magazine.” And the image was, when it came down to it, just too disturbing for the outlet to publish. It was, to her recollection, the only instance during the Gulf War where the photo department fought but failed to get an image into print.
James Gaines, the managing editor of Life, took responsibility for the ultimate decision not to run Jarecke’s image in his own magazine’s pages, despite photo director Peter Howe’s push to give it a double-page spread. “We thought that this was the stuff of nightmares,” Gaines told Ian Buchanan of the British Journal of Photography in March 1991. “We have a fairly substantial number of children who read Life magazine,” he added. Even so, the photograph was published later that month in one of Life’s special issues devoted to the Gulf War—not typical reading material for the elementary-school set.
Stella Kramer, who worked as a freelance photo editor for Life on four special-edition issues on the Gulf War, tells me that the decision to not publish Jarecke’s photo was less about protecting readers than preserving the dominant narrative of the good, clean war. Flipping through 23-year-old issues, Kramer expresses clear distaste at the editorial quality of what she helped to create. The magazines “were very sanitized,” she says. “So, that’s why these issues are all basically just propaganda.” She points out the picture on the cover of the February 25 issue: a young blond boy dwarfed by the American flag he’s holding. “As far as Americans were concerned,” she remarks, “nobody ever died.”
A family magazine. Yet that “family” magazine had no problem humping the next Iraq war, as if that’s not offensive to anybody’s family. As if what’s suitable for a family is to wage war without ever knowing the costs.
But how am I going to explain it to my children, the gentle reader asks. Well, let me throw this back at you: If you think it’s hard to explain a photo of a dead guy to your kids, imagine that guy’s kids. Imagine the explanation they must have needed. And then quit feeling so fucking sorry for yourself because it’s so hard for you to make sense of the world.
Moreover? It is not the journalist’s job to protect people from fucking thinking. It is not the journalist’s job to shield you from the consequences of your political actions. It is not the journalist’s job to decide, in advance, how upset you’re going to get about anything around you, and manage that upset carefully so as to ensure the circulation department receives no anguished calls.
It is the journalist’s job, as it always has been, to tell a story. If the journalist is brave that story’s about something you might not want to know about, like the human toll taken by even the shortest or “easiest” of wars. If the journalist is cowardly, or lazy, or stupid, or jus’ don’ wanna today, that story’s about how we can fight a war without really giving a shit about it.
Surprisingly, we end up telling that story over and over and over again.