What Shalit and Gaddafi Have in Common

10/20/2011 07:12 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

The 24-hour news cycle quickened this week. There was so much to say, but no time to say it, because the events happened so fast. Newspapers were ready to publish follow-ups and commentary on the prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel.

Everyone was still discussing the interview Gilad Shalit gave to Shahira Amin, of Egyptian State TV. Before he saw his family or even reached Israel, he was whisked away to speak to the well-known anchorwoman on his captivity and his unlikely position as a political pawn.

The interview is painful to watch. Shalit looks pale and sickly, and is tossed questions that would make anyone uncomfortable. Amin asks him why he thought the Egyptian mediation of the deal worked, answering her own question, but clearly looking for a quote.

The Israeli media was furious. Yonit Levy, a journalist, publicly called the interview "borderline torture."

Amin defended herself. "I really identified with him," she said, "He's the age of my children, and I held his hands a few times to calm him down before we continued."

Amin has credibility in the Arab world unknown to the Israelis. She quit her senior position at a State TV station during the revolution when the Mubarak government tried to influence her coverage.

The journalistic ethics of the Shalit interview were obviously complicated, and the debate was still percolating in the press. Lots of commentators had interesting perspectives. Then Gaddafi died.

On Thursday, I went to a press conference where British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was set to comment on upcoming Egyptian elections (now totally off the news radar, it seems). It was mid-afternoon, and we sat in a music theater, improvised to look more official, and a minaret loomed over us. Only the reporters constantly checking Twitter and wire services knew that Clegg's first words would not be about Egypt at all. "I've just received word," Clegg began, "that Gaddafi has been captured."

Clegg gracefully commented on events he knew almost nothing about, saying he thought Gaddafi should be taken to the International Court of Justice. He certainly had not seen the horrific, bloody images that everyone would be talking about just hours later.

Those images are, simply put, grotesque, and were replayed endlessly on Al Jazeera like a cruel joke. Gaddafi's grainy, bloodied, washed-out face laying on the ground, eyes rolled back, hair a wild mess. A shaky, pixilated video jumps between white, grey, blue, khaki, the jeans and skin of men surrounding him. And then red, the deep dark stain of blood covering Gaddafi's shirt as he slumps back.

Al Jazeera is famous for showing a level of gore Western networks will not stomach. CNN and BBC instead focused on images of celebrations in the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi. The New Yorker, Stratfor, and others on my reading list chose aesthetics over shock value, showing a charred, thrown away old photograph of the fallen leader.

The differences between Shalit and Gaddafi, when it comes to journalistic sensitivity, are obvious. Shalit was a victim, Gaddafi a victimizer. Hence, Shalit did not deserve to be questioned after five years of captivity, and Gaddafi got what he deserved: his humiliated, bloody face projected to the international public for hours on end.

The two events reminded me of an article I read last year by Janet Malcolm, in which she reflects on covering a murder trial, a place where violence is publicly laid bare. She turns the camera around, so to speak and writes, about journalism, that "human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse."

Whatever drove Amin to put Shalit on TV in his first moments of freedom and whatever compelled everyone who could stomach it to look at Gaddafi's image, those two impulses had something in common. They shared the rubbernecking, voyeuristic fascination with the deep, dark corners of the human experience interesting to all of us, but crucial to journalism. We wanted to look away, but couldn't, and in Amin's case blamed the messenger. Reporters, as indispensable participants in our public conversations, end up having to take the fall for our fascination with vulnerability.

Amin may have been insensitive, but exploiting an open wound was simply a less tasteful version of what we all secretly want to do, and journalists are often willing to do. It's that feeling of being robbed many Americans had when the Obama administration declined to release photos of Osama bin Laden's death.

At least with bin Laden's death, we had time to breathe and think about it.