Seattle Times Shows Courage Under Fire
It began as a tribute to the loss of American soldiers. It ended as a bitter lesson about the precarious nature of the freedoms for which those soldiers gave their lives.
On April 18, the Seattle Times ran a photo on the cover of its Sunday edition showing soldiers inside a military transport plane preparing rows of flag-draped coffins for a flight to Germany. The photo was accompanied by a story by Times staff writer Hal Bernton describing the immense care and respect that the honor guard were displaying for each of the fallen soldiers who had been killed in Iraq.
The image was taken by Tami Silicio, a cargo handler who worked for military contractor Maytag Aircraft at Kuwait International Airport. Silicio, an Edmonds, Wash., native, who had lost one of her sons to a brain tumor, was moved by the sight of dozens of caskets loaded onto planes, night after night. "The families would be proud to see their sons and daughters saluted like that," Bernton quoted her as saying.
On April 7, she snapped some digital photos of the unidentified caskets and e-mailed the images to a friend in the Seattle area, who, unbeknownst to Silicio, forwarded them to the Seattle Times.
Three days after theTimes published one of those photos, with Silicio's permission, Maytag Aircraft informed her that her services would no longer be needed. The same would be true for Silicio's husband and co-worker, David Landry. According to Maytag, Silicio and Landry were in violation of the U.S. government's 1991 ban on photographing deceased military personnel while in transit to the United States.
"We were surprised to hear about it," said Cole Porter, director of photography for the Seattle Times, in a recent phone interview with PhotoMedia. "We were even more surprised that her husband was fired, also."
To Maytag and Pentagon officials, it was an open-and-shut case: A well documented policy was in effect, designed to protect the privacy of the bereaved families, and Silicio knowingly violated that policy. It's hard to argue against the idea that she deserved some kind of official reprimand. However, the decision to fire Silicio and especially Landry, who not only had nothing to do with the photo but had urged his wife not to publish it, seemed rash. Coming as it did during a month in which the United States suffered the highest number of casualties since the war began, the enforcement of the Pentagon's policy began to look like politically motivated censorship.
In the following days, Porter found that the vast majority of Times readers agreed. The coffin photo generated more responses than any other photo in the paper's history, about 80 or 90 percent of which were in favor of the paper's decision. "We were getting about one e-mail every second," Porter said. "We knew there would be a huge reaction, but we had no idea it would be this strong."The letters of support came from across the political spectrum. "Some said it was a very respectful treatment of fallen soldiers. Others saw it as some kind of political statement," Porter said. "But most agreed that it should be published."
Neither Silicio's decision to take the photo, nor theTimes' decision to publish it, was made lightly. "There was no question that the photo was newsworthy, but we had it in hand for about 10 days before we decided to run it," Porter says. "There was a lot of effort to make sure it was authentic and that the photographer was sure of the risks if we published it."
After about 40 e-mails and several phone calls to Kuwait, Silicio agreed to release the image. "The motivation behind the photo gave it power and weight," Porter said. "She was never compensated for it, and did not ask for it. She knew that she could be fired for even taking the photo."
While Silicio was not a professional photojournalist, one cannot escape the threat that her firing implies to those covering the occupation of Iraq. In this era of "embedded reporters," with journalists engaging in unprecedented levels of cooperation with military officials, the casket photo incident may have a chilling effect on other photographers, who might consider sacrificing the unvarnished truth to ensure the continuation of unfettered access.
In some ways the reaction to Silicio's photo can be seen, in hindsight, as a turning point in the relationship between the Bush administration's version of the war in Iraq and the public's perception of the consequences. After Silicio's photo came the images of Iraqi prisoners being abused by their American captors in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Then came the shocking video of the beheading of Nicholas Berg, a U.S. contractor who had been taken hostage by al Qaeda terrorists and murdered in retaliation for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.The Times ran several of the now-famous Abu Ghraib photos and a still shot from the video showing Berg kneeling before his captors. In both cases, Porter said, the paper initially received some letters deriding the publication of the photos as a political stunt. Those letters, he added, generated an even larger response from readers who supported the Times.
"People today want the news to validate their own point of view," Porter lamented. "There's such a bias filter on what people see that they no longer look at (newspapers) as a source of information. For every reader complaining about (the Berg photo), there was another reader who was outraged that we were not showing the entire decapitation."
The Times has emerged from the Silicio incident unchanged, Porter says. "We don't have a set policy on publishing military photos or on showing dead bodies," he says. "The conversation is always as thorough as possible about whether each photo has journalistic value and (whether) the readers need to see it."
For their courage in publishing controversial images on their own merits and letting the readers interpret their meanings, the Seattle Times editors — and Tami Silicio — are to be commended.