The 9-11 Photo And A Columnist’s Character

One thing I have learned about personal ethics: they are imposible to hide. Ethical individuals eventually show their values in grand style, and those without ethics, or whose ethical values are corroded, frayed and rotting, show their true colors as well. Thus it was no surprise to me when Frank Rich, once one of America’s most unfair drama critics who turned into one of the media’s most vicious opinion columnists, exposed the content of his character in grand style with a New York Time column last month about 9-11.

No doubt about it, Rich is fun to read. He is a talented essayist who has never been burdened by the instinct to see anyone else’s side of an issue but his own. To Frank Rich, all political adversaries are not merely misguided, but villains; not merely villains, but stupid and evil villains. Just as he singlehandedly wrecked careers and destroyed promising theatrical productions by pronouncing Broadway shows that didn’t suit his particular tastes as inept, incompetent and a waste of time, so he has used his talent for cultured invective to characterize the entire political spectrum extending rightward from his far left viewpoint as un-American, venal and dumb. The Golden Rule is not for Frank Rich, nor is an aversion to extreme utilitarianism, for to him, the ends indeed justify the means. I think he has thoroughly proven this over his career, but he was generous enough to provide one more vivid example for anyone tempted to think that his commentary comes from a mind and soul concerned about small matters like fairness, honesty and responsibility.

In his New York Times column entitled “Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?,” Rich condemned America for being selfish and divisive, the last requiring special gall from Rich, who has been among the prominent voices that have fed the destructive culture of demonization in politics. He also blamed Republicans for all of it; no surprise there, either. But what distinguished this column in special unethical recklessness was how he used a photograph from September 11, 2001 to “prove” his point, without any concern for whether his characterization of the people in it was fair, deserved, or true. It served his purpose, that’s all, and those pictured were just Rich fodder to him…collateral damage, a means to an end.

He wrote:

“…there’s another taboo 9/11 photo, about life rather than death, that is equally shocking in its way, so much so that Thomas Hoepker of Magnum Photos kept it under wraps for four years. Mr. Hoepker’s picture can now be found in David Friend’s compelling new 9/11 book, “Watching the World Change,” or on the book’s Web site, It shows five young friends on the waterfront in Brooklyn, taking what seems to be a lunch or bike-riding break, enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away as cascades of smoke engulf Lower Manhattan in the background.

“Mr. Hoepker found his subjects troubling. “They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon,” he told Mr. Friend. “It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” The photographer withheld the picture from publication because “we didn’t need to see that, then.” He feared “it would stir the wrong emotions.” But “over time, with perspective,” he discovered, “it grew in importance.”

“Seen from the perspective of 9/11’s fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

It did not bother Frank Rich that he was using one split-second in five lives to impugn the character of identifiable strangers and an entire nation, or that the photographer, who took a photograph without the permission of his subjects not only used it in a collection, but also denigrated those photographed without having talked to them or investigatingfurther. Slate columnist David Plotz accurately called Rich on his unfair assumptions a few days after the column ran, although his purpose was to rebut his assumptions, not to question Rich’s use of the photograph at all. Urged by Plotz, some of the subjects in the photo came forth as well. Walter Sipser, the man in the far right of the photo, wrote…

“A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they’re having a party.
“Thomas Hoepker took a photograph of my girlfriend and me sitting and talking with strangers against the backdrop of the smoking ruin of the World Trade Center on September 11th. Earlier, she and I had watched the buildings collapse from my rooftop in Brooklyn and had made our way down to the waterfront. The Williamsburg Bridge was filled with hundreds of people, covered in dust, helping one another make their way onto the street. It was clear that people who ordinarily would not have spoken two words to each other were suddenly bound together, which I suppose must be a fairly common occurrence in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

“We were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day. Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind before concluding five years later that, ‘It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.’ Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw, conclusions that also led Frank Rich to write, ‘The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.’ A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one’s own biases or in the service of one’s own career.

Exactly. The photograph told us nothing about the values of the people in it, but the unethical way the photo was used tells us everything we need to know about Frank Rich.

[ Full Disclosure: Rich and I were at the same college at the same time. I met him only once. He actually gave me a rave review for my performance as The Lord Chancellor in “Iolanthe,” and I wrote him a thank you note. Little did I suspect that it might have been one of the last kind things he ever wrote.]

8 thoughts on “The 9-11 Photo And A Columnist’s Character

  1. I’m with you on 99% of this, but one thing jumps out:

    It did not bother Frank Rich that … the photographer, who took a photograph without the permission of his subjects[,] not only used it in a collection…

    I don’t see anything improper about using a photograph of strangers in a collection. Falsely ascribing beliefs to them? Yea, that’s wrong, but using the photograph? Not a problem.

  2. We have known for decades that the old belief that “photos don’t lie” is in fact a lie. And we don’t need photo-shopping, a relatively new phenomenon, to prove that fact. To ascribe emotion, conversational content, and the intent of those photographed based only upon (apparently) their body language is manifestly unfair and unethical in the extreme. Unless Mr. Hoepker was using some magnificent telephoto lens and was therefore miles away and unable to approach and join the group in their discussion, his work is worthless. It’s a photo without meaning. Or at least a meaning that can’t be divined from the photograph itself.

    As for Frank Rich, “fun to read” doesn’t mean “worth reading.” Pomposity, no matter how cleverly expressed, remains pomposity.

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