11/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Brave Editor Defends Publishing AP's Controversial "Dying Marine" Photo

In a widely-read posting here last weekend (nearly 3000 comments), I chronicled the controversy over a photograph shot in Afghanistan in mid-August by Associated Press staffer Julie Jacobson. From a distance, it captured the moments after a U.S. Marine, Lance Corp. Joshua Bernard, was mortally wounded by a grenade, and showed him with one leg partly blown off, tended to by his comrades. He died at a hospital a short time later.

AP moved the photo, even though the Marine's parents, and the Pentagon, objected. Few newspapers ended up running it online, even fewer in print. A debate broke out over the handling of the photo, and the "sanitizing" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. I appeared on NPR to discuss it on Monday, along with two newspaper editors.

It is fascinating, and vital, to look at one case study.

Mike Tharp, editor of the Merced Sun-Star in California, opted to print the photo on Saturday and post it online. He thinks his paper might have been only McClatchy paper to put it in a print edition. He also estimates that public opinion on this matter ran roughly 70-1 against that decision.

So I'll reprint here Mike's response to the heated criticism from the paper's Comments log.

09/05/2009 04:15:24 PM:

I expected these reactions when I ordered that both the AP photo and story be published in our pages and on this Web site. It's my responsibility, and mine alone, at the Sun-Star. I did so because, as a veteran, a war correspondent and an editor, I feel a deep duty to show American civilians the costs of fighting a war. To show the ultimate sacrifices paid by our servicemen and women in our name. Printed words, as your comments vividly show, wouldn't have generated the same responses as the image we ran.

Those of you in the Greatest Generation can recall hundreds of far more graphic images from both World War II and Korea. Those of you in my generation can do the same about iconic images from Vietnam. But since then Americans have become desensitized to the sacrifices we ask from those we send to war. Regrettably, the American press has censored itself and failed in its mission to bear witness to what war does to people -- and not just Iraqis or Afghanis ... but to mostly young Americans.

Greg Mitchell's latest book is Why Obama Won. His previous book on Iraq and the media, So Wrong for So Long, has several chapters on use and non-use of photographs. He is the editor of Editor & Publisher.