Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why the outrage over photo in subway death

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 10:11 AM EST, Wed December 5, 2012
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
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT