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 9:15 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT