By now you’ve likely seen the picture of the unfortunate [and, indeed, “doomed”] New Yorker, captured by a freelance photographer, scrambling to climb from a subway track a deranged man pushed him to as the train flies into the station and subsequently kills him.
The reputational issues are many and the argument over who should have done what to help the poor man, Ki-Suck Han, will rage for a few more days. All this came to light and was compounded by the New York Post’s publishing the picture on its Tuesday cover, focusing the aftermath on the role of the photographer and other riders in the station at the time of the tragedy.
If you favor the benefit of the doubt, you can’t criticize the photographer, who says he was trying to warn the train’s driver by flashing his strobe. And, the explanation from other riders about why they didn’t help Ki is that they had all crowded to the other end of the platform to stay away from the deranged person who later threw Ki off the platform. Clearly, there’s no one near Ki on the platform.
If you are more prone to cynicism and criticism, you likely blame the photographer, who obviously sold his photos to the highest bidder — the New York Post — for not helping the man. While it’s tough to gauge distance and elapsed time from a still photo, it’s clear the guy put taking pictures ahead of throwing down his camera and at least trying to help.
It’s also not a great character endorsement that when CNN called the photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, he said he’d only talk about the situation if CNN paid him. That’s not something most journalistic outlets will do and paints Abbassi as a mercenary.
For those too young to remember, if you grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in and around Manhattan, the name Kitty Genovese rings a parallel tone. The Queens woman screamed for her life as she was stabbed to death in two separate early morning attacks in 1964 and no one in her neighborhood either heard her screams or came to her aid or called police until it was too late.
This came to symbolize and demonize New York City as a cold, uncaring, unsafe place. It took decades to throw off that reputation, but this threatens to rekindle that image crisis for the city that never sleeps. “I didn’t want to get involved,” became the tagline for a city too big to care.
Her killer, Winston Moseley, became a deranged criminal sensation, involved in an escape and hostage taking at a Buffalo hospital in 1968, and then the infamous Attica uprising in 1971. He remains in prison, denied parole 15 times, with his next chance in November 2013.
The perception in the Genovese case became the reality that hurt New York City’s reputation — akin to the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s efforts 30 years later to police the small crimes that perception changed that New York City was a safer place.
As for the New York Post, it often crosses the line of “common decency,” however shifting that defining line may be in our 2012 society. It sells newspapers and builds its reputation on the British tabloid model through outrage. The editors who paid for the photo and put it on Page One knew exactly what they were doing. In their frame of reference, however, it was a legitimate slice of New York life on that day.
There’s no crisis at the Post, and most of those who ripped it for promoting “snuff porn,” don’t buy or read it anyway. The propriety argument is as old as heads on pikes outside the castle gate. The Post clearly adheres to the old PR saw that any news is good news, no matter how bad. Will this, as so many people who don’t really understand newspaper dynamics, “sell more newspapers?” Not really; certainly not in any long-term, financially advantageous way.
What it does is make the Post part of the conversation, the object of derision and outrage — yet one from which most of us cannot shield our eyes.
Something like publishing this photo doesn’t destroy or diminish a reputation that’s already in the gutter.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.