We weren't much surprised by the type of spot-news photo picked for the Pulitzer Prize last week.
It showed the execution by South Africa's African National Congress of a man believed to be a Zulu spy. The man is bathed in fire. Apparently his killer is hanging a flaming tire around his neck in a ghastly rite called "necklacing."Over the years since the first photo award was given in 1942 the Pulitzer winners have included some imaginative and quietly touching photos: a cop leaning down to talk to a small boy at a Washington parade; the hole in the shoe that humanized Adlai Stevenson; a gaunt, dying Babe Ruth's last hurrah in pinstripes at a Yankee Stadium appreciation just before his death in 1948.
But far more often journalism's most prestigious award has gone to a photo of violent death: people jumping or falling from buildings, drownings, plane crashes, sinkings. Some have been lucky once-in-a-lifetime shots made by nonstaffers or even amateurs. This year's winner was by a South African free-lancer on assignment for the Associated Press.
- MANY WINNERS HAVE BEEN much like this year's, shots of political torture and assassination: the fatal stabbing on a Tokyo stage of Japan's socialist party chairman, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the grisly reprisal bayonetting of a prisoner by victorious Bangledesh guerrillas, the hanging and beating of a leftist student by rightists at a Thai university, the 1968 execution of a suspected Vietcong by South Vietnam's national police chief, taken at the instant the pistol was fired.
The Pulitzer judges' near monomania for violent grab shots is sometimes defended on grounds that we live in a violent society, but clearly something else is operating here. The judges, and their brethren editors, are drawn to the bizarre, dramatic and unexpected, and to the lucky scoop.
And since such photos are most likely to be selected, so also they are most likely to be nominated.
- IN 1968 ANOTHER CATEGORY, featuring photos, was added. (The Deseret News story on the Pulitzers Wednesday was illustrated with a winning feature photo, of hapless Romanian orphans.) These have rarely been light subjects. The first was of American soldiers in Vietnam wrapped in ponchos and trying to catch some sleep in the monsoon rains. It was a photo not dissimilar from the one that won the spot news award in 1977, of drenched and exhausted Seattle firefighters resting on a muddy hillside during a lull in fighting a fire.
Whether spot or feature photos, the best pictures are those that freeze the revealing instant that seems to summarize the story, and not necessarily a story of violence.
COVERING EXECUTIONS: A San Francisco public TV station is going to unusual lengths to assert a right to be at an execution.
KQED is suing the warden of San Quentin to tape, possibly late this year, the first California execution in 24 years, of a man convicted of killing two teenagers. The federal judge hearing the case has granted a continuance until May.
The press has had no special right of access to executions. The print press usually is represented along with the official witnesses, though the San Quentin warden has banned all reporters.
In its pleadings the television station is arguing that many executions have been televised, such as shootings in Kuwait by Iraqi soldiers, the beheading of a Saudi Arabian princess and the deaths by firing squad of Romanian dictator Nikolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, as was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
Last week we saw a similar incident, a gunman shooting hostages in a Sacramento electronics store. It was played repeatedly on the air and at least one network used it in slow motion.
KQED also argues that many simulated executions have taken place in TV drama, including a re-enactment of a gas chamber execution of Caryl Chessman at San Quentin on the Connie Chung show last year and of the Gary Gilmore execution at the Utah Prison in 1982's "Executioner's Song."
It's unlikely the court is going to be blind to the substantial differences between dramatizing an execution and showing the actual death, or between a spontaneous news event and pre-calculated legal slaying. But some interesting arguments are unfolding. One group, which, like KQED, opposes the death penalty, supports live coverage because "if (people) see what executions are like they will oppose them." They cannot, however, have evidence for such a judgment.
The overriding question is whether coverage would be in the public interest. I am firmly for openness in public affairs but not persuaded that openness demands the presence of the camera in this case.
PICTURES OF BODIES: A trend that can be read in the KQED suit is what appears to be the greater and greater willingness of the media to show death and bodies. Perhaps we have all been desensitized by the glut of shootings, stabbings, crashes and assorted mayhem portrayed nightly on TV drama.
A couple of weeks ago Conor Clapton, the 4-year-old son of rock guitarist Eric Clapton, fell from a 49-story window in Manhattan. A picture of the body on a ledge was shown in the New York Post.
The New York Daily News published a photo of the body covered and took the occasion to twit its rival on its more lurid picture. It gleefully reported reader protests against the Post, including one that asked, "Who would put a picture of a dead baby in the paper?"
I'd be more convinced of the Daily News' sincerity and good intentions if it were not locked in what could be a long and bitter tabloid war with the Post. The Post said that since window guards could have prevented the death, it ran the picture because of a genuine public safety concern. Uh huh.