Issue October 3, 2006

On Media: News judgment or censorship?

A mysterious package was delivered to The Courier-Journal last week. Inside were lurid contents — a CD with 232 pictures of scantily clad women, supposedly members of the Kentucky National Guard unit that recently shipped out to Iraq. The C-J ran a front-page story on the photos, with comments from the appropriate military brass condemning the women, who were apparently using their M16s in ways not intended by the manufacturer.
The C-J had the photos but chose not to share any portion of them with readers. Or with any other local or national media. Or with anyone not employed by the newspaper.

David Hawpe, the C-J’s editorial director who was among those who made the decision, was so proud of the paper’s action that he brought the CD to a local forum on media censorship. He held the disk high above his head, proclaiming, “We didn’t publish this, and I’m proud of it.”

The photos, as described in The C-J story by Andrew Wolfson, showed women “kissing one another, posing suggestively with military rifles and covering their breasts with American flag decals.” Hawpe said the paper even toned down the descriptions of the photos so as to avoid offending readers. Thus, he said, The C-J gave up an opportunity to publish a truly exclusive set of photos, and a rare chance to drive readers in droves to its Web site, all in the name of public decency.

Newsflash: Hey, David, that night’s episode of “My Name is Earl” was set almost exclusively in Chubby’s, a strip club. It aired during the “family” hour, at 8 p.m. My point is that the public’s decency meter won’t tilt at the site of a sexy woman with a gun. We’ve seen it before. There are plenty of nude pictures of women available for those interested in seeing them. I’m not buying the public decency angle.

You’re telling me that out of 232 photos, you couldn’t find a couple that weren’t obscene? Ever heard of a technique called cropping? Please, send ’em over to LEO. I’m sure we’ll find a way to present the pictures tastefully.

Seriously, my point is this: The pictures were part of the story. No, actually, they were the story. If the story is about the U.S. Army investigating the photos, and The C-J has copies of the photos, it makes sense to publish some portion of the photos. I can’t imagine other media outlets not finding a way to give the public some idea of what all the fuss was about.

In Editor & Publisher, a journalism trade magazine, a story about the Louisville controversy said that several television outlets asked to see the photos but The C-J opted not to share them. I can only imagine how “Entertainment Tonight” might have played the story — blurring the breasts perhaps — but showing as much of the pictures as FCC censors might allow.

Was The C-J perhaps protecting the identity of these women soldiers? According to the story, just 11 of the 107 members of the Guard unit were female, and the Army wouldn’t provide their names to The C-J.  In one photo, apparently, a last name is visible on a dog tag, but The C-J did not reveal the name.

“Let them put it up on blogs,” Hawpe said, opening a series of slams against the increasing credibility enjoyed by bloggers, including BluegassReport.org’s Mark Nickolas, who also sat on the panel, two seats away. “They’re full of gossip and are unreliable,” Hawpe said, adding that blogs, like blind pigs, occasionally stub their nose against an acorn. He implored attendees to realize there’s a difference between journalism and blogging.
Nickolas, for his part, said he would NOT have published the photos on his blog, saying it “smacks of salacious exploitation and would be done for generating sales, not real journalism.”

I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this story, because there are too many unanswered questions. Who was the photographer, and who sent the mysterious disc to the newspaper? Who were these women, and what was their motivation for posing for the pictures? What will the Army do if and when it gets all the facts? And of course, where’s the money — for the photographer, for the women involved, for the medium that publishes the pictures?

Whoever sent the disc to The C-J in the first place had an agenda in mind, probably to see the pictures published. Hey, LEO’s address is 640 S. Fourth St., Louisville, KY 40202. Send it to the editor’s attention.

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com

Bob Edwards returns
Longtime public radio favorite and Louisville native Bob Edwards is returning to the air, though just once a week, on WFPL-FM. “Bob Edwards Weekend” will air from 2-4 p.m. each Saturday, beginning this week. The weekend program features interviews from Edwards’ weekday show on XM Satellite Radio, and is distributed by Public Radio International.