Freedom From The Press Indeed
An Open Letter to Mr. Frank Rich,
Columnist, The New York Times

by Nubar Alexanian

Dear Mr. Rich:

I always look forward to reading your column and cannot, for the life of me, understand why other journalists seem so unwilling or unable to press important issues as directly as you do. Your column is regularly steeped in facts (along with an attitude) that are helpful to many of us who are trying to make sense of the world we live in.

Where I live, far from the power centers of New York and Washington, whenever your column appears on the editorial page of the New York Times, there's always a flurry of voice and email messages in my neighborhood and among my colleagues around the country. The messages are always the same: "Don't miss Frank Rich today." Yours is a powerful and effective voice in the world.

With this in mind, I'd like to bring your attention to last Sunday's editorial page of your newspaper (3/02/02), specifically to the advertisement purchased by The American Jewish Committee. I mention this because, as you will see, not only do I believe this kind of advertisement compromises your important work, but, in the end, endangers the lives of journalists working in the field. As a photojournalist who has worked all over the world, from Peru to Jerusalem, I am concerned that this advertisement may have put a brave young photographer in jeopardy. I believe that you, as someone who has eloquently defended journalists doing their jobs in far-off places - be they Danny Pearl or anyone else - will share this concern. I've attached two photographs to this document.

Let's look at the first photograph that accompanied The American Jewish Committee's advertisement. After making an understandable case against suicide bombers, the advertisement closes by saying: "Take another look at the picture. Which of the masked suicide bombers is the father, and what kind of future is he planning for his son." For their purposes, the photograph is highly effective. It is ominous and frightening. It's also a lie.

This becomes clear in the second photograph, which was not published, but was readily available at It's tragic enough that Palestinian children dress up like suicide bombers much the same way that children in the US dress up like firemen (which I believe is the real intent of the photographer.) But there are no fathers indoctrinating sons here. And this is not a terrorist training camp. They are not wearing real bombs, nor are they holding real weapons. The captions that accompany each of these photographs on the Getty site make all of this perfectly clear. These are children living in a refugee camp who just finished marching in a small parade in support of Hamas in December, 2001. Frightening, yes. But terrorists, no!

Please understand that I'm not taking sides in the Middle East conflict here. Rather, I'm deeply troubled by the collapse of journalistic standards which not only misinform but can create serious potential danger.

What about the photographer? Here we have a young, smart, hungry photojournalist, working in the Middle East who has worked hard over time to gain the trust of Hamas and Hizbollah. Based in Beirut and paying her dues every day in the field, she has used her access time and again to shoot pictures for publications like the New York Times and her agency, Getty Images. If Danny Pearl was believed to be a spy by his captors, what do you think Hamas and Hizbollah think about Courtney Kealy after this debacle?

Not only was her name displayed prominently next to the image, identifying her as the photographer for the world to see, but her photograph was used, not toward journalistic ends, but as propaganda for one side against the other in an already inflamed conflict. And this, on the editorial page of the newspaper of record around the world! Can anyone at the Times explain this? Perhaps the American Jewish Committee or Getty Images has an explanation. I'm anxious to hear it, because a simple apology will not do. This courageous young woman and everything she has worked for has already been compromised.

Who would be to blame if something terrible happened to Courtney Kealy? Would Getty Images be to blame for selling a documentary photograph used as propaganda and allowing the use of the photographer's name? Would the New York Times accept any responsibility for allowing this kind of unexamined propaganda on its editorial page? What about the American Jewish Committee?

So why am I writing an open letter to you, Mr. Rich? Because I hope you will raise this issue with your colleagues and that a public discussion will engage picture agencies and editors alike to make sure this never happens again. You've written very eloquently about Danny Pearl, honoring his courage and integrity as a journalist. How ironic that the very next day your very words were undermined on the same page. Let's not put another journalist further in harm's way than her work already demands.

There is no acceptable solution to the problem already created here. Only a lesson or two about truth, integrity, honesty and maintaining the highest achievable standards in journalism.

With Respect,
Nubar Alexanian

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