Times editor talks about controversial story: transcript
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On Wednesday, in a live chat with readers, Times Editor Davan Maharaj talked about the front-page story on U.S. troops posing with body parts from Afghan suicide bombers.
The story, and the two photos that accompanied it, outline how a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division posed with remains when sent on two missions attempting to get identification of the dead bombers. The Pentagon has denounced the behavior depicted in the photos and has launched a criminal investigation.
The Defense Department had asked The Times not to run the photos. After careful consideration, Maharaj said, the paper decided to proceed, selecting two photos out of 18 to be published.
The soldier who gave the photos to The Times said he hoped their publication would help ensure that disciplinary breakdowns, which endanger troop safety, would not be repeated.
A transcript of the discussion with readers follows:
Roger Smith: I’m Roger Smith, the national editor of the Los Angeles Times. I’m here with Davan Maharaj, the editor of the paper, to discuss the LA Times story on U.S. troops posing with body parts from Afghan suicide bombers.
We’ll get started with some questions we have already collected from readers, and invite you to join in with your questions.
11:05 comment from Steve Myers: Can you tell me how you decided which photos to publish?
11:05 Davan Maharaj: Hi Steve, the two photos published were chosen because they clearly and unambiguously depict conduct that the Army described as inappropriate. In examining the full set of images, we set aside others on grounds of taste, relevance or repetitiousness. Some were too gruesome. Others were very similar to the two images already chosen or were difficult to interpret.
11:07 Roger Smith: Why did you decide to publish despite the Pentagon request that you not?
11:08 Davan Maharaj: Thanks, Roger.
We considered this very carefully. At the end of the day, our job is to publish information that our readers need to make informed decisions. We have a particular duty to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan. On balance, in this case, we felt that the public interest here was served by publishing a limited, but representative sample of these photos, along with a story explaining the circumstances under which they were taken.
As our story makes clear, these photographs were provided to us by a soldier in the unit who was himself concerned that the photos reflected dysfunction, in discipline and a breakdown in leadership that compromised the safety of the troops.
This soldier felt that publishing them would lead to changes that would make U.S. troops safer.
11:09 comment from Javier: I am dismayed at the sensationalism in the Times and lack of perspective. You have blown a thing out of proportion and sound more like the National Enquirer than a civic-minded paper. EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS! was your subhead. My only question is how you think you can add balance to this now that you’ve gone down the road of the evening newscast?
11:10 Davan Maharaj: Javier, thanks for your point. We’ve worked very hard to try to be responsible in the way we handled this. We felt that the public had a right to see these photos. In this case, we felt publishing them the way we did was the right decision.
11:11 Roger Smith: Did you consider that publishing these might endanger the troops?
11:12 Davan Maharaj: Yes, we did.
In fact, our reporter David Zucchino and I had numerous discussions with Pentagon, Army and White House officials over the course of several weeks before publishing this story. When we made the decision to publish, the Pentagon asked us to wait 24 additional hours to protect troops depicted in the photographs. We agreed to push back our publication date until the Pentagon told us they had taken the necessary precautions. In fact, we waited more than 72 hours after their request.
11:13 comment from Steve Myers: Do you plan to continue to hold back the other photos?
11:13 Davan Maharaj: Yes, we do, Steve.
11:13 comment from Peter: How do you think the pictures will influence Middle Eastern views on the US?
11:15 Davan Maharaj: That’s difficult to know, Peter. Once we got the photos, we decided it was important for the public to know about them.
11:15 comment from Caroline: Do you have any plans to do some feature stories with experts who might be able to explain why these soldier breakdowns in discipline occur?
11:16 Davan Maharaj: Great idea, Caroline. That’s definitely something our reporters are looking into.
11:17 comment From John: Did the LA Times pay anyone for these photos? Bottom line, did any soldier get money from your paper?
11:17 Davan Maharaj: We did not pay for the photos. The soldier did not receive any money from the paper.
11:18 Roger Smith: We’ve had several questions about the image of the soldier with the corpse hand on his soldier. We’ll list several of them and ask Colin Crawford, our photo editor, to respond.
11:18 comment from Matt: Has the soldier’s missing hand in the top photo been explained? Is he an active duty Airborne with a disability?
11:18 comment from Karen H: I’m having trouble making visual sense of the photo with the soldier whose nametag says Gate or Gates standing in front of a corpse and another U.S. soldier. The U.S. soldier on the left appears to be an amputee or there is a strange angle to his hand. Can you explain that aspect of the photo? Have you checked to ensure it’s not Photoshopped?
11:18 Colin Crawford: Good question, Karen. You are correct, there is a strange angle on the image. The soldier is wearing black gloves on both hands and his left hand is underneath the body pushing it forward. This makes is appear that his hand is cut off, but it is actually just the angle.
11:19 Roger Smith: Did you contact the soldiers who were pictured?
11:20 Davan Maharaj: We sent requests for comment to seven soldiers in the photos. One, now serving in Afghanistan, declined to comment. The others did not respond. The soldier who provided the photograph was present when they were taken and we did interview him.
We also asked the Pentagon to contact all of the active-duty soldiers depicted in the photo, but they declined.
11:21 comment from Peter Green: Thank you for publishing. Clearly the soldiers were acting outside of policy & procedure, Uniform Code of Conduct, and Geneva Convention. My question is did they report this up the chain of command? And do we know the response? Or lack of response?
11:21 Davan Maharaj: The best information we have suggests that the soldier did not report this up the chain of command. Here is our latest post about the official response to the photos:
11:23 comment from Matt: Under what different circumstances would have led your team to publish ALL of the photos?
11:25 Davan Maharaj: The two photos published were chosen because they clearly and unambiguously depict conduct that the Army described as inappropriate. In examining the full set of images, we set aside others on grounds of taste and relevance. We decided that some were too gruesome. Others were very similar to the two images already chosen or were difficult to interpret.
11:26 comment from Michael: How do you resond to the Pentagon charge that this could incite a backlash -- more violence, both against the US military and against US targets in general?
11:29 comment from Mark: The solider says he came forward because of concerns about a breakdown in discipline, standards, and the chain of command. Clearly the photos demonstrate that by themselves. But there weren’t any other examples listed in the reporting. Nothing to describe the climate that this person seemed to be reacting to. Will there be more reporting on the ‘breakdown’ that he alleges?
11:31 Davan Maharaj: Thank you, Michael. Your point is something that we debated vigorously inside the newsroom.
There is some debate whether publishing the pictures would endanger soldiers. The soldier who provided the photos to us was concerned that the unit had recently returned to Afghanistan. He feared that the lack of discipline, leadership and professionalism in that unit would put them in danger.
The Pentagon thought publishing the photos would endanger U.S. troops. This soldier thought it would lead to improvements in safety.
11:32 comment from Sherri: This happened in 2010, why is it being brought up now??
11:33 Davan Maharaj: Sherri, the photos were taken in 2010 and had been circulated among members of the 82nd Airborne unit. But they were only recently provided to us by a soldier from that unit.
11:34 Roger Smith: How do we know that the photos are real?
11:35 Davan Maharaj: We questioned at length the soldier who provided the photos about where, when and under what circumstances they were taken. Independently, we verified his identity and the details of his service in Afghanistan. Through spokesmen for the Pentagon and the Army and other military sources, we confirmed that soldiers who appear in the photos were members of the 82nd Airborne Division.
We shared the images with the Pentagon, and officials there did not question their authenticity.
Our photo editors also inspected the pictures and found no indication that any of them had been altered or manipulated. Thank you for all your questions and participation. We will continue to have more coverage on the story at latimes.com.