But is it right?
TIME's managing editor, Richard Stengel, explained his decision to feature the photograph on the magazine's cover. (Fair warning: the link above takes you to his editor's note and a small version of the image, so if you're easily shaken and you'd rather avoid it, don't click. Here's the cover story, and here's a link to a full-size pdf of the image.)
The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war. Our story and the haunting cover image by the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground. As lawmakers and citizens begin to sort through the information about the war and make up their minds, our job is to provide context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time. What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.So: does this constitute advocacy? (Before you answer, consider the fact that the woman's picture is accompanied by the headline, "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.") Stengel's assertion that the decision to run the image was judgment-neutral strains credulity; will anyone view that photo and say "this helps confirm my view that we must withdraw?"
I don't have a problem with advocacy one way or the other, even by media organizations. Publications are within their rights to have an editorial line, and if TIME's is that we ought to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely in order to protect the human rights of Afghans, then that's fine. But let's not fool ourselves that this is merely "provid[ing] context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time," unless that context and perspective amounts to "there are no good options here."
And again, didn't we already know that?
I don't want to reduce this whole thing to a complaint about the media and the circulation motive, the ethics of making editorial decisions and headline choices out of a drive to sell papers, etc etc, because I don't find that to be a particularly interesting subject. Will more people pick up this issue because of the disturbing cover image? Probably. Will some people avoid it for the same reason? Probably. Will more people be talking about TIME because of this provocative editorial decision? Certainly, and it strikes me that that's probably the point.
So I guess if we're trying to come around to something bigger than a discussion of journalistic ethics, it's this: should the plight of women (or people in general) under hard-line theocratic rule be driving our policy choices?
What about after 1,000 dead Americans?
What about after 10,000 dead Americans?
There's no moral equivocation here. We are the good guys, and there's no two ways about it. I'm not going to sit here and say "well the Taliban might cut people's faces off, but we kill plenty of people with misguided Hellfires and that's just as bad!", because it's not. There's a difference in intent, and that matters.
But where's the line? How many human rights are enough? How much suffering is too much?
So, this: What's the magnitude of human tragedy required to justify a financially and strategically bankrupting enterprise?