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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 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.