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Why the outrage over photo in subway death

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
December 5, 2012 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: New York Post ran degrading, exploitative pic of man about to be hit by subway
  • Human response is one of horror, and reason paper did it: to grip New Yorkers, he says
  • He says it's newsworthy for a tab, but worse offense is photog who didn't seem to help
  • Kurtz: Post sensationalizes to sell papers and succeeded, but he wouldn't have run it

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- It was a horrifying front-page photo in every sense of the word.

It felt cheap, degrading and exploitative in a way that words could never match.

The photo captures a Queens man, Ki-Suck Han, after he had been pushed onto the subway tracks Monday as an oncoming train roared toward him. The screaming headline says it all: "DOOMED."

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

But the New York Post had every right to run the picture. This is what tabloids do -- milk tragedy for every ounce of emotional impact. No New York straphanger should have been surprised to see the photo.

Perspective: 'Outraged' at NY subway death photo

A typical reaction: "Sickening rubber-necking front page from the New York Post. Imagine how this man's family feels," tweeted an editor at The Guardian.

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That, of course, is the normal human response. It also explains why Rupert Murdoch's paper did it, knowing that everyone in New York would be gripped by the image.

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No one would dispute that the story is newsworthy. It is, in fact, every New Yorker's nightmare. Perhaps you have to have spent much of your life crowding onto narrow platforms with total strangers and trying to squeeze onto overcrowded subway cars, to understand the every-day fear that you could be groped, mugged or pushed into danger.

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Why, then, the visceral sense of revulsion?

It's fine to look down your nose at the New York Post for showing such a horrific picture, to say it was grossly unethical. But what about all the media outlets that show equally horrific pictures from war zones? We've seen bloodied children in Gaza, Pakistani police machine-gunned by the Taliban, bodies being thrown off roofs in Syria. And we're horrified by a picture of a man who is about to die in New York? What's the difference? Is it any worse because it happens in the United States?

The truth is that this picture seems more monstrously unfair because we can easily imagine being in the victim's place. We may complain about it, but if it's so clearly out of bounds, why have so many websites and television networks now run it?

For the Post to run it was unfair to Han's family, but the media don't usually worry about such things. It was accurate and captured an important story.

Watch: Are TV newsbabes dressing sexy for ratings?

It was insensitive -- hard to imagine the photo running in The New York Times -- but people buy the Post for punch-in-the-gut tales, for the "headless body in topless bar," not for astute foreign policy analysis. The story is so sickening that we want to turn away but can't. The picture makes us so uncomfortable that we're mad at the Post for inflicting it on us.

There are pictures of murder victims in the paper every day, part of the sad toll of urban life. But the difference is that we're not watching them being shot or stabbed.

Watch: Media embrace cop who bought boots for homeless man

One aspect of this tale that makes my blood boil is the role of the freelance photographer, R. Umar Abbasi. Instead of snapping two pictures of a man about to die, why didn't he try to pull him to safety? Abbasi claims he hoped the flash would warn the subway driver. I'm not buying it. His first instinct was to record death, not prevent it. Every editor has to strike a balance between depicting ugly reality and the sensibilities of readers and viewers.

There are those who believe that the American media should run more pictures of dead or wounded soldiers, that we -- especially in television news -- sanitize war by shying away from showing its victims.

Would I have run the front-page photo of Han? No way. But the New York Post has a different mission, to shock and sensationalize, especially when it comes to crime. On that point, the tabloid succeeded, which is why so many people are angry -- and everyone is buzzing about it.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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