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Duly Noted

Tuesday, Dec 4, 2012, 10:31 pm

Thoughts on the New York Post Subway Death Cover

By Lindsay Beyerstein

Today, the New York Post ran a front-page photo of a 58-year-old man about to be crushed by the Q train, having been pushed onto the subway track. The headline reads: "Doomed: Pushed on to the Subway Track, This Man is About to Die." If you want to see it, here it is.

As a photojournalist, a lot of things bother me about this cover, starting with the fact that the Post published it. To add insult to injury, they ran it with a headline that underscored the purient value of the photograph itself, rather than the underlying news event. The news is that an innocent man was pushed onto the subway tracks, but the headline is about how creepy it is to be looking at a photograph of a human being facing imminent death.

The photographer, R Umar Abbasi, claims that he didn't really mean to take the picture, he was just trying to signal the subway driver with his flash. That sounds like bullshit to me. It's a sharp, well-composed image. Why would he think a flash would help get the driver's attention better than waving his arms and yelling? You know, the universal signal for "Stop, there's someone on the track!" 

It sounds like Abbasi's trying to sidestep ethical questions about why he was snapping pictures instead of trying to help the guy. His account makes it sound like the image was an unintended byproduct of his attempt to help. Talk about trying to have it both ways.

Abbasi also said he realized he wasn't strong enough to pull the man off the tracks. That sounds more plausible to me. If he was too far away, or not strong enough, or scared, or not sure what to do, nobody could blame him for standing by. Ninety-nine percent of people in that situation would fall into one of those categories.

I assume Abbasi would have helped if he could. If that wasn't in the cards, I don't fault him for taking the picture. But his excuse insults our collective intelligence. Own your decision, man.

I don't want to be too hard on Abbasi. He just witnessed a senseless killing. He's surely traumatized and I hope he's able to recover and move on with his life and his career. I hope the Post shells out for some counselling if he needs it. He's a freelancer, so you never know.

The New York Post should never have run that photo, especially not on the front page. The news value of the image is negligible. Sadly, people get hit by subway trains fairly regularly and their deaths rarely rate more than a paragraph in the city section. The fact that the victim was pushed makes the story slightly more newsworthy, but let's face it, this incident would never have made the front page without a dramatic photograph.

The news value of the image doesn't begin to justify the agony that this cover surely inflicted on the man's loved ones.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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