New Yorkers don’t shock easily, but yesterday’s New York Post shocked even the city’s most jaded tabloid readers. The reaction has now reached far beyond the New York metropolitan area and brought expressions of outrage and revulsion from journalism critics, other newspapers in New York and around the globe, and the social media universe.
Monday in Manhattan, Ki Suk Han, a 58-year-old husband and father, was thrown onto the subway tracks by a man, since identified and arrested, and crushed to death by a train. As Han desperately tried to scramble back up onto the platform, horrified onlookers screamed and frantically waved at the train to stop. The gruesome incident was captured in a series of photographs by freelance photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, whose photos have previously appeared in the Post.
Whether Abbasi was morally or ethically wrong to snap pictures instead of, say, attempting to help the victim is not the topic here, although Abbasi’s claim that he was merely using his camera’s flash to alert the train driver and just happened to end up with so many clear, composed, usable images is transparently bogus.
No, it is the editorial decision of the New York Post to run one of the sickening photos on the cover (which is easily found online and will not be reproduced here), framed with a lurid headline, “This man is about to die,” that I find most disgusting. One can imagine the Post’s editors, driven solely by prurient and commercial calculations and looking to milk this horrific crime for maximum shock value, rubbing their hands with onanistic glee while composing the cover. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Nation propagandist rag revels in the outrageous and controversial (this is the newspaper, after all, that depicted President Obama on the cover as a monkey during the healthcare debates and not long ago suggested the Brooklyn Nets basketball team should be renamed the “New York N*ggers”), but this time they’ve set the bar as low as it can go.
Shocking news photographs are nothing new and can often tell an important story more effectively than mere words. One need only recall Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of a self-immolating monk or napalm-burned Vietnamese children to appreciate the power of spot news photography to awaken and inform. But the Post’s photos (both on the cover and inside) had no journalistic purpose, no story to tell. They merely seek to exploit a moment of profound helplessness and terror. Yesterday’s New York Post was the tabloid version of a snuff film.
I believe in free speech and freedom of the press. I do not argue that the New York Post had no right to publish these photos or to compose grotesque headlines. But I do also believe in responsible journalism, the exercise of common decency and common sense, and civic good balanced by respect for the victim and his family. No one really expects such things from the Post, of course, but is there no limit to their gleeful sociopathy? Evidently not.
In the coming years, with nearly every cell phone owner a budding photojournalist, envelopes will be pushed and new boundaries tested. Let us hope that a voyeuristic delight in the suffering and peril of others remains only the stuff and substance of the New York Post and that better newspapers will continue to draw a sensible and civilized line. Better still, I hope the internet eventually pushes the Post to the figurative tracks and puts them out of business.