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Sunday, May 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Mike Fancher / Times executive editor
Worldwide interest in coffins photo was surprising, gratifying


TAMI SILICIO
Tami Silicio's photo of military coffins coming home from Iraq sparked worldwide interest.
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Archives: How two women, one photo stirred national debate

Tami Silicio never imagined all that would happen when she gave permission for The Seattle Times to publish her photograph of military coffins coming home from Iraq. Neither did we.

"I figured it's just a local newspaper and it would just run for one day," she told Editor & Publisher magazine. "I didn't think it would be seen all over the world. I didn't have a sense of how important it would be."

Those of us at The Times knew the picture would be important, if only because the government prohibits the press from taking such photos. But we didn't dream it would spark so much interest worldwide.

We expected that some readers would question our decision to publish the image of more than 20 flag-draped coffins aboard a military transport plane in Kuwait.

Our first surprise was that reaction among our readers was overwhelmingly positive. The first wave of e-mails, including some from military families, thanked us for the respectful presentation of Silicio's picture and story.

The story said Silicio had taken the picture because she was so moved by the honor and dignity with which the fallen soldiers were treated. She believed the soldiers' families would be proud to see how their loved ones are treated.

That was the spirit in which we published the picture two Sundays ago, and readers embraced it. Those who oppose the war said the image helped convey its human cost. Those who support the war said the picture honored the sacrifice of the dead soldiers.

Some readers expressed concern that Silicio would face reprisals for taking the picture and permitting The Times to publish it. They were right. Within days, Silicio and her husband, David Landry, were fired from their jobs at Maytag Aircraft in Kuwait.

That wasn't a surprise to us. Barry Fitzsimmons, one of The Times' photo editors, had warned Silicio that publication of the picture could cost her job. She said she hoped that a respectful presentation of the photo and story would minimize the risk to a job she very much wanted to keep.

"The picture is about them, not me, about how they served their country, paid the price for our freedom, and the respect they receive on their way home from our military personnel at our air terminal," she wrote in an e-mail to The Times just days before the picture ran.
 
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The firings sparked even greater interest in the picture and the government's attempts to control such images. About the same time, the military released hundreds of other photos of coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and suddenly the Internet was awash in them.

For several days, Times Managing Editor David Boardman and I spent most of our time being interviewed by other media. We were on everything from "Good Morning America" and "NBC Nightly News" to radio stations in Ireland and Australia. We in no way anticipated such widespread interest.

Our purpose in granting interviews was to explain what The Times had done and why, not to engage in a debate about the war or even the Pentagon's policy on pictures of coffins. We had been clear from the outset that Silicio said she didn't have a political motive for taking the picture and we didn't have one in publishing it.

Initial response to the picture and story had been uniformly thoughtful, and even people who disagreed with us did so with civility. But as the week went by we got some reaction from people who hadn't seen our newspaper and who assumed a political motivation for running the picture. That response tended to be far more strident and was sometimes quite ugly.

We were dumbfounded as letters to the editor poured in from around the world. Jim Vesely, Times editorial-page editor, reported that at one point the e-mails were coming at one per second. On the whole, the reactions remained overwhelmingly positive, for which we are grateful.

We're also gratified that Silicio feels we treated her story and photo with the dignity and care she intended.

This has been an amazing chapter in this newspaper's history. Let me close it with what I think is the most important letter we received in the past two weeks. It is from Jean Gray of Richmond, Va., who expresses everything that Tami Silicio and The Times could have hoped for.

"Thank you! My son, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Gray, was killed in Kuwait March 5, 2004. Although these recently released photos have been unbearably sad, I am comforted knowing Michael received such a level of reverence and respect. My greatest concern was that he lay alone and abandoned to be treated as little more than military cargo. Though the pain of his loss is no less, these photos have helped bring me a bit of peace."

Inside the Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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