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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.