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 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT