By Chez Pazienza:
Denis Leary used to do an amusing bit years ago where he said that one of the best things about living in New York City is that there are so many interesting ways to die. It isn’t simply a matter of the usual daily trials of living in a big city — the potential to be shot, mugged, hassled by roving gangs of brown youths of indeterminate Latin American lineage, etc. — it’s the almost unimaginable and constantly evolving urban landmines that are indigenous to New York and that present an everyday threat, whether you choose to deny their existence for the sake of your own sanity or not. You can be killed by a block of ice falling off the top of a skyscraper. You can step on an inadvertently electrified manhole cover. You can fall through a storm grate on a sidewalk.
You can get pushed in front of a subway train.
By now you’ve all seen the photo and I guarantee you have an opinion of it: a man desperately trying to scramble back onto a Times Square subway platform while an oncoming Q-train bears down on him. You’ve seen it because it ran as a full-page image on the front cover of yesterday’s New York Post, a newspaper with a reputation for a deplorable lack of class but which generally is most offensive only for its willingness to give someone like Andrea Peyser a public forum.
The man on the tracks, 58-year-old Ki Suk Han, a father from Queens, was killed when the train in the photograph plowed into him seconds after the shot was snapped. The Post, for running a photo of what’s essentially a dead man along with the tastefully subtle headline “DOOMED: Pushed on the subway tracks, this man is about to die,” is now facing a shitload of thoroughly righteous outrage. As well it should. The decision not simply to run the image but to flaunt it is, without a doubt, one of the most indefensible, luridly morbid things I’ve ever seen from a news organization — even one as traditionally hackish and worthless as the Post. If you need a clear representation, in a single, undeniable frame, of the iniquitous impact of the Rupert Murdoch culture on the free press — and the shot of a besieged Rebekah Brooks in the back of a car being whisked away from News International, James Murdoch testifying before Parliament, or the couch-of-idiots three-shot on Fox & Friends doesn’t do it for you — Tuesday’s Post cover should give you something to mull over for months. The Poynter people have probably already hung the thing on their wall as the perfect reminder of how not to be a journalist.
There’s an argument to be made that the photo of Han’s last seconds alive has news value and, while it hasn’t issued a public statement yet, at some point the Post is very likely to try to make it. Don’t be fooled: No, there isn’t any news value to the picture and the potential value of it as a news item never entered the thought processes of the Post’s editors anyway. Sure, there’s no doubt that it’s captivating, but so are crime scene photos and the press very rarely runs those unedited. While each individual news item should be evaluated on its own merits and there should rarely be an across-the-board rule about what can and can’t be published or put on-air, the good of the public always needs to be considered. The questions that should be asked when confronted with an image like that of a man trying futilely to save his own life on a subway track include: Is this of immediate importance to public safety? Is the person in the photo a “public figure” or an average citizen? Does the public right-to-know trump the pain that’s going to be caused to the innocent family of the victim? (Yes, this may seem like a dicey one to journalistic purists, but screw that: you have to be human as well as a professional and when you’re not you forfeit the right to question why people think of you and your ilk as nothing but soulless vultures.)
Like the aforementioned Leary bit, there are some who will say that the picture conveys the indiscriminate and omnipresent danger of living in New York City. It confirms everyone’s worst fear, certainly the fear of anyone who’s ever spent a good portion of his or her life standing on the edge of a subway platform — that he or she can be the victim of some nutjob who was ranting to himself in the moments before he decided that you needed to be knocked into the path of an oncoming train. But that’s fear-mongering and nothing more. The photo, its prominent placement and the ghoulish headline all exist in their current state for one reason and one reason only: to create the kind of sensationalism which subsequently turns a profit. There may have been a way to handle the story that actually did serve the public good. This wasn’t it.
Then there’s the man facing as much criticism as — if not more than — the New York Post. I’m talking about the freelance photographer who shot the picture, R. Umar Abbasi. For the record, while Abbasi is making the “I’m Not a Monster” rounds on morning TV today, it has to be noted up front that when he was first approached by CNN, the network claims that Abbasi demanded money in exchange for an interview. Apparently, coming to the conclusion that half the city he lives in now wants to see him pushed in front of a subway train, he realized it was in his best interest to go on TV and seem as devastated and haunted as possible.
I’m not going to suggest that it was Abbasi’s responsibility to save the life of Ki Suk Han, but it’s tough to argue that he couldn’t and shouldn’t have done something other than to begin taking pictures. His allegation that he attempted to use his flash to warn the driver is about as ridiculous as it sounds; it’s the kind of bullshit you’d expect from a bottom-feeding tabloid photographer and it’s somewhat comical that Abbasi expects anyone to believe it. I wasn’t there so I obviously don’t know exactly what happened, nor do I know the timeline of events. I’m also absolutely willing to concede that no one can predict how an average citizen will react to a moment of madness. But while it can be claimed that a photographer’s first instinct is to grab his or her camera and start shooting, it doesn’t make that person any less of a piece of shit for doing so when he or she is in a position to potentially help someone who’s about to die. Sorry, but “I’m a journalist, it’s my job” doesn’t cut it. The only people in a big city whose job it is to save lives are police and firefighters — it doesn’t mean everyone else gets to look the other way when there aren’t any of those handy and somebody’s about to be killed.
Years ago, when I still lived in New York City, I was walking at night along the Upper West Side and came upon an accident involving a bus and a pedestrian. I used my press pass to get behind the police line and asked one of the cops on the scene what had happened. He smirked, squatted down and shined his Maglite under the stopped bus. I leaned over and took a look for myself. There, laying on the ground, was a woman’s severed leg. “Jesus,” I winced. “Nice, huh?” he returned. “She was wearing an iPod and tried to cross against traffic — didn’t even hear the thing coming.” While gruesome and certainly a potential object lesson, I chalked it up to just another one of those dangers of living in the city. People get killed all the time in so many interesting ways. At this point, it’s not even news anymore — even if it is caught on camera.
As always, the analysis of the New York Times’s David Carr is spot-on. His view of this incident and the Post’s treatment of it is required reading.