Grossman, an American Jew studying in Israel, was beaten by a mob in the Arab section of Jerusalem and rescued by an Israeli policemen. When the photo of the bloodied Grossman appeared, a club-wielding and shouting policeman standing over him,
it was released by the AP and flashed all over the world–including the NY Times–with the laconic caption, “An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount.” The reader was led to the inescapable conclusion that the Israeli had beaten the defenseless Palestinian youth.
To this day, that misapprehension continues among many, despite attempts at correction. The photo was originally used as propaganda for the Palestinian intifada; it is still used for propaganda purposes by the Palestinians. After all, what are facts when there’s a larger truth to consider?
Landes makes the important point that the misidentification most likely had to do with the expectations of the press that any photo featuring “bloodied youth and Israeli policeman with club” would just have to be of a Palestinian who had been beaten by said policeman. Psychologists have long known that human beings function in the world by setting up such templates as shortcuts to ordering observations.
I became curious to know more of the details of the chain of events involved in this error. Who actually had been responsible for the mistaken caption? Who had taken the photo, for example; had he/she originally identified the people in it, and if so, how? Was the error the photographer’s, or had someone else along the way goofed–or even lied?
It took some digging to find any answers, and at first I found only a fragment. It appeared in this recent article from the Jerusalem Post on the subject of the Grossman photo (Tuvia himself, by the way, has emigrated permanently to Israel, according to the article).
Here’s the passage relevant to the caption’s genesis and evolution:
…a freelance photographer took a shot of one of the soldiers, his club in the air, standing over a bloody Grossman. The Associated Press, in giving a caption for the photo, identified the gas station, outside the Old City, as the Temple Mount and the victim as a Palestinian.
From this we learn that a freelance photographer took the shot, and someone at the AP gave it the caption (we also learn that the policeman in question may have actually been a soldier, although the words “soldier” and “policeman” seem to be used interchangeably at times in articles about the incident, including even this one by Grossman himself. An unimportant distinction, perhaps, but it illustrates what an elusive quarry accuracy can be–as does this whole affair).
So, we still haven’t a clue as to how the AP managed to get the information so very wrong. Even CAMERA, which has a good summary of the development of the story and the differing retractions and corrections along the way (including the AP’s first correction, which again misidentifies Tuvia, this time as an Israeli medic) fails to shed light on the question.
Here is the most complete set of facts describing how the caption came to be written that I’ve been able to find. It’s not perfect, but it will have to do. The link is to a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the NY Times about a week after the story broke. Here’s the relevant quote (note that the soldier [?] has turned back into a police officer):
A picture of Tuvia Grossman, his head bloodied and sitting in front of the approaching police officer, was taken by an Israeli photographer for Zoom 77, an Israeli agency, and sent that Friday, Sept. 29, to The A.P. in Jerusalem with a garbled Hebrew caption that misidentified Mr. Grossman as an Israeli ambulance medic.
The A.P., which had received many pictures of injured Palestinians that day, did not clarify the garbled caption but sent the picture to subscribers with a caption based on the erroneous assumption that Mr. Grossman was a Palestinian. It also misidentified the site, first as the Temple Mount and later as another site in the Old City.
Many newspapers published the picture and erroneous captions based on The A.P.’s information. The New York Times misidentified Mr. Grossman in last Saturday’s issue as a Palestinian and in some copies misidentified the site as the Temple Mount. In a correction on Wednesday, The Times noted that the wounded man was Tuvia Grossman, a student from Chicago, but–using erroneous information from The A.P.–mistakenly said the site of the attack was in the Old City.
So: we’ve learned that the photographer was an Israeli who originally made an error about Grossman’s identification–a different and much smaller error than the one later made by the AP. At least the photographer got the fact that Grossman was a Jew and not a Palestinian correct–and that the policeman/soldier was protecting him rather than beating him. (At the same time we’ve learned why it was that the AP’s first correction of the caption had misidentified Grossman still again, this time as an Israeli medic–the AP was simply using the information supplied by the photographer’s original caption to make its correction. One almost begins to have some sympathy for the AP at this point–almost.)
The incident began with the fact that the photographer’s original caption had somehow become garbled (unintelligible? illegible?). But the AP, instead of asking for clarification from the photographer–as it should have if it had any interest in accuracy–seems to have filled in the blanks (just as Landes has suggested it did) with its own expectations and assumptions that the bloodied man had to have been a Palestinian victim of Israeli aggression. All the other papers followed the lead of the AP, not having any reason to suspect a mistake. The Times, when informed of the error (by Tuvia’s father, by the way), continued to err in the first of its several corrections by relying on the already-discredited AP for the location shown in the photo.
A story of astounding carelessness, expectations, assumptions, and multiple misidentifications on the part of the press, particularly the AP–although one that does not seem to include deliberate lying, except on the part of the Palestinian organizations still using the photo even today.
The whole thing would be relatively trivial if the subject matter weren’t so important, and hadn’t been so inflammatory. The photo and caption have already done their dirty work, and I doubt that many of the people who saw the original caption have ever caught the correction, or ever will.