Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

Watch: Is the New York Post harassing Alec Baldwin in alleged stalker case?

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.

Watch: Fox's Roger Ailes courted David Petraeus for possible presidential run

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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT