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Part Exposé, Part Cover-Up: 1968's My Lai Massacre Photos Have Big Lessons For Citizen Journalists

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The front page of last Friday's edition of The Cleveland Plain Dealer included a story headlined "Photographer destroyed photos of soldiers in the act of killing." Before I type even one sentence more, I want to make clear that I have never ever done anything brave enough to make me believe I am better than Ron Haeberle, the Army combat photographer in that headline.

Decency really demands that I try to imagine myself in Haeberle's boots, entering the soon-to-be-infamous Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai with fellow U.S. soldiers on the soon-to-be-infamous date of March 16, 1968.

Would I, as Haeberle did, have had the guts to carry my Army-issue camera and a contraband camera of my own that day? Would I, as Haeberle did, have had the guts to snap photos as my fellow soldiers marauded through My Lai, slaughtering hundreds of Vietnamese men, women, and children? Would I have had the guts to bring my film back home to America at the end of my deployment? Would I have had the guts to develop the film? Would I have had the guts in 1969 to corroborate reporter Seymour Hersh's My Lai massacre exposé by bringing my photos in to my local newspaper?

I just don't know. I really don't.

So if I slip into moral-superiority mode here, please just stop reading. This post's usefulness rides entirely on whether I can confine myself to spotlighting the journalistic implications of this quote from Haeberle's new interview with Plain Dealer reporter Evelyn Theiss:

I realized that there's no way I can really release photographs showing who the actual persons are doing what. I figured I'm not going to point my finger at any one soldier. I'm there. I'm part of it. I'm as guilty as anybody else. Not for shooting a person, but for not reporting it. It's just like one big cover-up. But there are photographs I could have pinpointed who did what and the actual falling with the smoke out of the muzzles and stuff like that. It's just kind of [pause] a decision I made myself.

Haeberle went on to talk about getting a visit from an Army investigator assigned to probe the My Lai massacre:

He asked me the question: Did I have any more photographs? So I said no. I answered him honestly. But I never said the words, "I destroyed them." ... I never said that. So what the Army got are some photographs that really aren't worth something unless somebody talks about them. Like a photograph's worth 1,000 words. These photographs aren't worth anything unless somebody actually talks about them.

There were limits to the justice that military prosecutors managed to wring from the evidence that hadn't been destroyed or otherwise covered up. As Theiss wrote in last Friday's Plain Dealer, "Twenty-six soldiers of the 50-member unit were initially charged with criminal offenses for their actions, but only Lt. William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder."

People -- here and in Vietnam and all over the world, really -- can take these facts and these new quotes from Haeberle and judge him however they choose.

But I'm focused on something else. It's not some epoch-changing idea. It's not something that will require a lot of words. I simply want today's would-be "citizen journalists" to consider this: Even though Haeberle's shocking photos appeared in a newspaper, they do not qualify as journalism.

They could have been journalism. But they weren't. They lost their claim to being journalism when Haeberle destroyed photos, when Haeberle cut the tongue from his own work, when he turned his photos, as he said, into images that "aren't worth anything unless somebody actually talks about them."

It's not that all of Haeberle's photos needed to run in a newspaper. In fact, it's doubtful that anything so gory and disturbing would have. Rather, one value of the destroyed photos would have been this: to give editors as complete a sense as possible of the story behind the corpses in his surviving photos.

Whether our next iconic, history-making image is shot by an amateur with a blurry camera phone or a pro lugging around state-of-the-art gear, the person behind the camera should aspire to journalism, should photograph both the beatings by the riot cops and the crimes of the rioters. That's a lot to ask. Most of us, thrown suddenly into a news event, will fail to create some ideal journalistic record. So perfection and seasoned professionalism cannot be our standard for citizen journalism.

Rather, our standard must grow out of the next stage, the editing stage. Citizen journalists must not do today's equivalent of what Haeberle did. Citizen journalists must not give in to the urge to un-take a photo, to click delete and banish the evidence for the parts of a story that shame them, their cause, their friends, their country, their species. In citizen journalism, we might as well rename the delete button and think of it as the "cover-up button."

If people resist pushing that cover-up button, we stand a real chance of having robust citizen journalism. If people don't resist, we will slouch more and more toward citizen propaganda. That would be a great shame.

Huffington Post blogger David Quigg lives in Seattle. This piece originally appeared on his personal blog. See "What Will Vietnam Think of Army Combat Photographer's New My Lai Revelation?" for further thoughts on Haeberle's disclosure.