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Murder on Haifa Street

Will we ever know the truth behind the Associated Press's strange, anonymous pictures of an execution?

12:00 AM, Apr 18, 2005 • By D. GORTON
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The Associated Press's anonymous, award-winning photo of an execution on Haifa Street.The Associated Press's anonymous, award-winning photo of an execution on Haifa Street.

ON DECEMBER 20, 2004 newspapers around the world carried a dramatic photograph of an execution of Iraqi election workers, in broad daylight, on Haifa Street in Baghdad. The Associated Press photo, allegedly made by an anonymous Iraqi "stringer," was remarkable for its depiction of the executioners ,who were unmasked and seemingly in total control of the street.

On April 5 the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News was awarded to a selection of photographs by the AP from the war in Iraq and the "execution" on Haifa Street was among those honored. The only photographer not named was the "stringer" credited by the AP. It is the only time, to my knowledge, that an anonymous photographer has been cited in the history of the AP's Pulitzers.

THE EXECUTION PICTURE advanced the meta narrative of the mainstream press that Baghdad and much of Iraq was chaotic and out of control. The AP dispatch accompanying the photo said, "a brazen daylight attack in the heart of Baghdad with rebels executing election workers in cold blood served as a chilling reminder Sunday of the deteriorating security situation in the Iraqi capital with just more than a month before crucial parliamentary elections."

The blogosphere was immediately curious about the picture's origins. The Belmont Club noted "the longest of odds that would have brought the cameraman to the site of the surprise attack." He also noted that there was no actual picture of the execution, but rather only the moments before and after the killing. Little Green Football wondered why the byline for the photograph concealed the identity of the photographer. Power Line wrote that the "AP admits relationship with terrorists" and asserted that the photographer was "obviously a few yards of the scene of the murder, which raises obvious questions."

Anonymous AP sources told Salon that the accusations were "ridiculous" and that the photographer was likely "tipped off to a demonstration that was supposed to take place on Haifa Street." But the photographer "definitely would not have foreknowledge" of a violent event like an execution.

In December Jim Romenesko posted an email from Jack Stokes, the AP's director of media relations. In the email, Stokes said that Iraqi photographers work "in places that only Iraqis can cover. . . . communities they live in where family and tribal relations give them access." He continued, "insurgents want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let Iraqi photographers take their pictures." But, he concluded, "it's important to note, though, that the photographers are not 'embedded' with the insurgents. They do not have to swear allegiance or otherwise join up philosophically with them just to take their pictures."

The issue of complicity or collusion with news sources comes up frequently in the media. It ranges from the relatively innocent attempts by a PR person to place a story for a client up to, and including, fabrication of evidence. The layers of fact checking employed by the media, along with the known background of the reporter or photographer, are the key ways news organizations verify stories. In addition, there are usually other observers to the scene. Jayson Blair, for instance, was caught after reporters who had covered the same stories raised questions about his facts.

There does not appear to be any independent verification of AP's anonymous photographer, who also appears to be the source for the AP news dispatch.

THE CONTROVERSY appeared to die down until the announcement of the Pulitzers on April 5. In my years as a photojournalist for the NEW YORK Times I had developed an enduring respect for the photographers of the wire services, including the AP. They are tough, forthright, immensely talented, and completely reliable as news gatherers. I was outperformed more often than not by the wires when I was on the White House beat in the Washington bureau of the Times during part of the Carter and Reagan administrations. The 2005 Pulitzer that the AP received was the 29th awarded in the their illustrious history.

On April 6 Editor & Publisher posted a story about the controversy with the AP that the crucial photo of the execution on Haifa Street had been made at "300 meters." (This statement was later amended due to a "misunderstanding.") Puzzled by the distances involved, I felt that this claim was nearly impossible after viewing the photo offered on the Pulitzer site. Also puzzling was that Editor & Publisher insisted that the judges on the Pulitzer committee "hailed from a hardly liberal group of papers."

WHEN I LOOKED UP THE PULITZER JURY, I was again surprised to see the name of J. Ross Baughman, a Pulitzer winner for photography in 1978 for the AP. I had known of Baughman and the controversy that surrounded his Pulitzer. He had accompanied the Sealous Scouts, the anti-insurgency force of the white Rhodesian government, during the independence wars led by Robert Mugabe. Dressed in military garb and carrying an automatic weapon, Baughman had come back with a set of pictures allegedly showing torture and other atrocities committed by the Scouts. His activities had raised deep ethical questions. Interviewed later, he said that he could have stopped some of the atrocities by inhibiting the soldiers. "I could have said, 'Gee fellows do you think this is necessary?' It would have been possible for me to poke my head into the next hut and shoo the people out the back, giving them a few extra seconds."

Instead he decided to shoot pictures. "If you're going to find out if they're really going to pull the trigger, you have to wait," he explained. Today Baughman is actually a case study in ethics taught at journalism schools. What, I wondered, was he doing judging the Pulitzers?

IN A LENGTHY ANALYSIS I conducted for Power Line, I concluded that the pictures were probably taken from between 15 and 35 meters away from the execution on Haifa Street. The AP stringer was within hailing distance and certainly within the kill zone. I also concluded, after carefully examining the photograph, that it had all the earmarks of a planned image. Among other things, it was taken from an elevated position, perhaps a pick up truck, affording a wide view of the scene as well as a quick exit. I noted that that was not the only possibility, however it could support the blogger's suspicions about proximity and the possible collusion with the killers. The AP reports of the distance began to shift from "300" meters to "100 meters" to rest at last, according to a New York Times reporter, at "50 meters."

The distinguished combat photographer, Santiago Lyon is the director of photography of the Associated Press. Lyon released an article on April 5, "The Story behind the Photo," in which he traced the stringer's movements at the killing scene. Pointing out that the exclusive picture "spoke volumes about the situation in Iraq just 6 weeks before the 2005 national elections," he portrayed the photographer walking around and talking to the terrorists. Then the photographer, according to Lyon, began making the execution pictures while standing beside his car just after a bomb blast had shattered the vehicle's windows. Lyon explains that a vehicle obscured one picture of the actual killing, but remains silent on the other two murders. Most photographers use motorized equipment that snap pictures at a high rate of speed, perhaps 3 per second. How could he have missed? Lyon said the pictures were made with a "400mm lens" which implies a great distance. However, he neglected to state the distance of the photographer from the killing, the very basis of the controversy.

So this is where the story stands now: A photo "stringer" who is identified as an Iraqi national, who remains anonymous, makes an exclusive picture that is not corroborated by any other photographic news source. The image fits into a press meta narrative about the situation in Iraq prior to crucial national elections. The published photo sets up an immediate outcry in the blogosphere and is met by an institutional defense by the AP. That is followed by a series of misstatements by the AP on the distance the photographer was from the scene, culminating in a piece by AP's director of photography, who avoids addressing that very issue of proximity.

Whatever the truth is, it may eventually come out. The terrorists know whether or not they were complicit with the photographer. As the insurgency winds down they may broker their way into an amnesty in which, no doubt, many tales will emerge--tales that could confirm the worst suspicions of complicity in murder.

In the meantime the AP is left with almost no reasonable defense of the photographer's actions, uncorroborated as they are. They can release all of the photographer's pictures of that day. They can even produce the photographer. But it's difficult to see what they could do to assure their integrity in this matter.

D. Gorton is a former New York Times White House photographer who covered the Carter and Reagan administrations.