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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

What Would YOU Do?
First, let's start near the beginning:

The U.S. military is investigating the videotaped fatal shooting of a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi prisoner by a U.S. Marine in Fallujah.

The startling footage was shot by embedded NBC correspondent Kevin Sites of NBC television. The incident played Saturday as the Marines 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, returned to the unidentified Fallujah mosque....

On the pool videotape a Marine can be heard shouting obscenities as the camera enters the mosque, yelling that one of the men was only pretending to be dead. Then, with the camera rolling, a Marine is shown raising his rifle towards a prisoner lying on the floor. The video shown by NBC was blacked out at that point and did not show the bullet hitting the man -- but a rifle shot could be heard.

'He's dead now,' a Marine is heard saying.

The videotape doesn't hold enough information to determine if the man on the floor was alive or even moving....

NBC aired the video, and then other news organizations aired it afterwards:

The grisly video of a U.S. Marine shooting to death a wounded Iraqi in Fallujah on Saturday is getting heavy airplay on Middle Eastern TV and stoking anti-American anger.

While many Western military experts were being quoted Tuesday in various news media as saying the Marine's action may have been a justifiable act of self-defense, discussion boards on Web sites devoted to extremist Muslim causes were buzzing....

On the streets of Baghdad, some Iraqis reacted with anger to TV broadcasts of the killing. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network showed the video repeatedly Tuesday.

"When I saw the video, I wished I had a stronger gun and (could) spray that soldier with 100 bullets in his head," said 39-year-old Issam Mohammed, who sells sodas.

Ironically, the video's very existence is because of the U.S. military's prewar decision to "embed" journalists with troops. That decision was inspired in part by a hope that bringing reporters along would help counter any distorted charges about what U.S. troops were doing....

[Kevin] Sites' video was shared with the other four major American TV networks, three British networks, Reuters TV and Associated Press Television News. Those organizations agreed before U.S. forces attacked Fallujah that they would "pool," or share, all video footage taken by their embedded correspondents.

It took NBC until about 1 p.m. ET Monday to get its report ready to give to the other networks because it wanted to interview the Marines as well as their commanders. Reports using Sites' material hit the air shortly after 5 p.m. ET Monday on Fox News Channel and CNN. MSNBC, ABC, CBS and NBC followed with stories starting around 6:30 p.m. ET.

John Stack, Fox News' vice president of news gathering, credited NBC with "handling this expertly from the pool's perspective."...

American TV viewers didn't get quite as much of the video as those in the Middle East. While U.S. networks edited the video so that it stopped just before the shot was fired, Al-Jazeera chose to show the entire sequence.

Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout said "the image itself (of the shooting) was newsworthy."

The network has chosen not to broadcast video of what may be the execution in Iraq of aid worker Margaret Hassan. It has also not broadcast executions of other hostages killed by terrorists in Iraq.

"Hostages are caught in the crossfire, and we do not want to offend their families" by showing their deaths, Ballout said. "Soldiers are on the battlefield and (are) part of the story of war."

Sites himself looked at the issue of how this video may be used by parties other than NBC in a post in his blog:

This week I've even been shocked to see myself painted as some kind of anti-war activist. Anyone who has seen my reporting on television or has read the dispatches on this website is fully aware of the lengths I've gone to play it straight down the middle -- not to become a tool of propaganda for the left or the right.

But I find myself a lightning rod for controversy in reporting what I saw occur in front of me, camera rolling....

I did not in any way feel like I had captured some kind of "prize" video. In fact, I was heartsick. Immediately after the mosque incident, I told the unit's commanding officer what had happened. I shared the video with him, and its impact rippled all the way up the chain of command. Marine commanders immediately pledged their cooperation.

We all knew it was a complicated story, and if not handled responsibly, could have the potential to further inflame the volatile region. I offered to hold the tape until they had time to look into incident and begin an investigation -- providing me with information that would fill in some of the blanks.

For those who don't practice journalism as a profession, it may be difficult to understand why we must report stories like this at all -- especially if they seem to be aberrations, and not representative of the behavior or character of an organization as a whole.

The answer is not an easy one.

In war, as in life, there are plenty of opportunities to see the full spectrum of good and evil that people are capable of. As journalists, it is our job is to report both -- though neither may be fully representative of those people on whom we're reporting. For example, acts of selfless heroism are likely to be as unique to a group as the darker deeds. But our coverage of these unique events, combined with the larger perspective - will allow the truth of that situation, in all of its complexities, to begin to emerge. That doesn't make the decision to report events like this one any easier. It has, for me, led to an agonizing struggle -- the proverbial long, dark night of the soul.

I knew NBC would be responsible with the footage. But there were complications. We were part of a video "pool" in Falluja, and that obligated us to share all of our footage with other networks. I had no idea how our other "pool" partners might use the footage. I considered not feeding the tape to the pool -- or even, for a moment, destroying it. But that thought created the same pit in my stomach that witnessing the shooting had. It felt wrong. Hiding this wouldn't make it go away. There were other people in that room. What happened in that mosque would eventually come out. I would be faced with the fact that I had betrayed truth as well as a life supposedly spent in pursuit of it.

When NBC aired the story 48-hours later, we did so in a way that attempted to highlight every possible mitigating issue for that Marine's actions. We wanted viewers to have a very clear understanding of the circumstances surrounding the fighting on that frontline. Many of our colleagues were just as responsible. Other foreign networks made different decisions, and because of that, I have become the conflicted conduit who has brought this to the world....

So here, ultimately, is how it all plays out: when the Iraqi man in the mosque posed a threat, he was your enemy; when he was subdued he was your responsibility; when he was killed in front of my eyes and my camera -- the story of his death became my responsibility.

The burdens of war, as you so well know, are unforgiving for all of us.

Some people feel that Sites made the wrong decision. Here's Annika's take on the matter:

i’m pissed because i’m at the mercy of the gatekeepers in the mainstream media yet again. They wanted to portray this marine, who deserves a medal by the way, as a modern version of Kerry’s “Winter Soldier,” ravaging the countryside in a manner reminiscent of “Jinjiss” Khan. So they deliberately replayed the video without the proper context or explanation, in effect superimposing their anti-military and anti-American bias onto the objective facts in the most sneaky, despicable way.

My outrage doesn’t end there. This punk, Kevin Sites, apparently wants the marines to not hate him for endangering their lives by providing the enemy with propaganda, which they will use to prolong their futile resistance. Make no mistake, Kevin Sites and his superiors have the blood of U.S. marines and soldiers on their hands....

"We all knew it was a complicated story, and if not handled responsibly, could have the potential to further inflame the volatile region."

That is exactly what is happening. Two words: al Jazeera. And he knew the risk, too....

Since al Jazeera is part of the “pool” that shared the marine shooting video, no one could reasonably believe that foreign journalists who actively consort with the enemy would use the video in a neutral way. In fact, al Jazeera and the foreign press have used it to fuel anti-American hatred and embolden our enemies while we are engaged in defeating them. This will only lengthen the resistance, which can only lead to more American deaths.

If I were in Sites' shoes, I wouldn't stop what I was doing merely because someone might misuse my content. Someone is bound to misuse content; it happens all the time.

In fact, this very post may be misuing the content of Annika or Sites or the news feeds by selectively editing their original content. Am I twisting the truth? Am I leaving out important information?

The only way to judge whether I am misleading you is to reveal all of the information that is available. If you click on the various links, you can read the totality of what Annika said, what Sites said, etc., and you can judge for yourself whether I have misled you or not. If I hadn't provided links to the original content, you'd only have my quotes, and you wouldn't know how much twisting I had done, or if I had even quoted the original sources accurately. In sum, it's important to retain access to the original sources.

Similarly, it's important that Sites' entire video, including the portions that were blacked out (ironically by the American news organizations, not Al Jazeera) be available in some form, along with all of the information about what had happened that day, or the day before.

I don't believe that we can be damaged by complete information. If we can, then all of us had better shut down our blogs right now...

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