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David Sirota
David Sirota
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A Picture Worth Far More Than 1,000 Words


To publish or not to publish? That was the debate in media circles this week after the New York Post printed a horrifying photo of a man named Ki Suk Han who had been pushed onto the subway tracks and was trying to avoid getting hit by a train. In its typical bombastic fashion, Rupert Murdoch's tabloid offered up the image as cheap, decontextualized news pornography for infotainment junkies. "Doomed," blared the headline in giant type, with the macabre subhead telling readers "this man is about to die."

The Post's singular goal, of course, was to attract eyeballs. To do that, the paper's editors opted to tap into the same impulse that prompts drivers to gawk at grisly highway accidents. In response, critics, like my Salon colleague Mary Elizabeth Williams, excoriated the paper for engaging in a "shamelessly tasteless stunt" that was all about exploitation.

"This wasn't like the historic front page stories of the My Lai massacre, or of crowds lynching men in the South, or of Kent State: photographs of dead bodies that arrived with a demand for action and justice," Williams wrote, summing up the pervasive criticism. "They were pictures that told a bigger story about a major news event ... What does the Post have to say, aside from the fact that an apparently disturbed man pushed a commuter toward his death?"

Williams and other critics were right to slam the Post's specific presentation of the image. However, many seemed to miss the true news value of the photograph itself. Looked at carefully, it is not merely a picture - it is a mirror.

Here is an image of an immigrant in the richest city of the richest nation trying - literally - to personify America's up-from-the-bootstraps creed and pull himself to safety. And yet he was left to die in total solitude. As holiday music extolling community spirit echoes through every public space, not a single person came to his aid.

Apparently, the only assistance he received was from a freelance photographer who flicked his flashbulb, allegedly to tell the train to stop. But those flashes were not necessarily altruistic - they were also helping the camera record everything for maximum photographic effect.

Considered through this prism, the image is clearly powerful - and quite newsworthy.

Looked at one way, it captures how so many immigrants are invisible to the larger population - unseen or ignored in what should be the most attention-grabbing of moments.

Looked at another way, the photograph documents desensitization - Americans (and city dwellers in particular) are often so used to witnessing tragedy that many don't even react to it anymore.

Looked at yet another way, it seems to illustrate which ideology has won too many hearts and minds. In a country that oxymoronically touts both its generosity and its self-focused hyper-individualism, the latter ethos too often wins out, to the point where a guy thrown to the bottom of a subway channel can't even get anyone to offer a hand up.

But maybe the most harrowing message of the image is the one about voyeurism. Echoing our obsession with commodifying images and packaging them to "go viral," the snapshot personifies a culture that tells us to take pictures first and help later - if at all.

That any newspaper - even a tabloid - could behold such a consequential image and nonetheless use cheap headlines to obscure its core meaning only underscores the supremacy of such voyeurism.

Ultimately, then, the most profound visual to come from Han's death may not be the photograph itself - but the image of how it was presented on the cover of the New York Post. In that chilling context, it says far more than 1,000 words about what truly ails our society.

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. Email him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at



6 Comments | Post Comment
You don't mention the most repulsive thing about this--the photographer made MONEY, probably quite a bit of it, by documenting and selling that terrible moment. The paper made MONEY on selling it.

But you're making a little on the side, too, aren't you?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Aint_Necessarily_So
Fri Dec 7, 2012 4:51 AM
I agree with the comment made in the previous post that this article leaves out a very important point -- one of the direct causes of these kinds of societal behaviors is the "profit motive" of the corrupt and rotting unrestrained predatory capitalism that is strangling our country. I understand and agree with the larger point the author is trying to make, but while neither the actions of the photographer nor the lack of common sense and decency by one of the ubiquitous right-wing rags posing as journalism surprises me, this greed factor cannot be ignored and the level of this moral decay and profit-before-decency ethos truly sickens me.

Besides the subject matter, how is this any different than what Fox so-called "news" does on a daily basis? They sell right-wing porn for profit 24x7.
Comment: #2
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Dec 7, 2012 12:14 PM
A.Smith - And MSNBC, CBS, CNN, etc don't hock Liberal garbage 27/7 for profit? Well, they try, but all are in the financial tank, much like the country. What sickens me is this country becoming divided more and more everyday because of our "media" and government. The great divider in chief is getting exactly what he wants. What happened to Americans? I know for sure we could use one in the White House and a few in the House and Senate....
Comment: #3
Posted by: Truth never fails
Fri Dec 7, 2012 1:37 PM
A. Smith, it's a bit of a riddle. If no one talks about it, nothing will change. But if the issue is the profit motive in actions like the photographer's, and the people who talk about it are also paid, isn't it a case of pot calling kettle black?
I usually like David Sirota's columns, and I think he has some valid points here. But there surely is a hypocrisy angle, and I think it's valid to call him on it.
I wouldn't know about Fox. I don't watch it/listen to it. I agree with your assessment of them.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Aint_Necessarily_So
Fri Dec 7, 2012 8:08 PM
Re: "Truth" never fails
Calling CBS and CNN "liberal" lowers your credibility to zero and tells me that you know nothing about the truth about our current corporate media. You sound more like someone who has been brainwashed by the right-wing propagandists who want Americans to believe that all media has a liberal bias. If it was ever true, it certainly isn't at this moment in time. And MSNBC does have some liberal hosts during the evening hours, but if you thing Joe Scarborough ("Morning Joe") is a liberal you really are living on another planet. The only true example of a liberal channel that you could credibly mention at this time is Current TV. And that is only a recent example since it wasn't political before Keith Olbermann moved there a couple years ago.

Now, I totally agree with you about this country becoming increasingly divided. Yet you yourself (perhaps unknowingly?) are helping to divide us. Look at what you wrote: "great divider in chief", "What happened to Americans? I know for sure we could use one in the White House and a few in the House and Senate". Besides being way out-of-touch with reality and totally false, you don't think statements like that are divisive? This sounds to me like it came straight from Fox "news" or right-wing radio. The truth is that the right, not the left, is dividing America. In fact, the perfect example is our president. Obama has gone to extreme lengths to try to get the Republicans to compromise, so much so that he almost lost his base and his re-election over it. It is the Republicans who never compromise and are dividing Americans. It has been their strategy for a long time in order to distract us while the rich rob us blind.

If you really want a less divided country then why don't you turn off Fox and Rush and stop spouting right-wing propaganda? You can be sure when your side stops, the left will stop its defensive counter attack and maybe then we can start to work together to find common solutions to our problems like we used to before Regan and the Tea Party nuts took over the Republican Party. Like decades ago when Republicans voted for tax increases, supported union rights, and even (gosh!) wanted to conserve and protect our environment!
Comment: #5
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Dec 14, 2012 10:13 AM
Re: Aint_Necessarily_So
I think I understand what you are getting at, and mostly agree with you. But I guess my main disagreement is with your belief that David is being a hypocrite. True, any writer today has to think about generating "buzz" and being provocative to draw eyeballs. But it's not at all like he did the same thing as the Post: taking advantage of people's inclination to be drawn to tragedy to sell papers by putting it on the front page without any sort of commentary against that kind of exploitation. David was trying to shine a light on the problem, not further the exploitation. Besides, the venue is totally different and I would be surprised to learn that this particular article led to any significant profit for anyone.
Comment: #6
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Dec 14, 2012 10:25 AM
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