Niagara Gazette

December 8, 2012

GLYNN: No one helps man staring at death

By DON GLYNN
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It's a story that happened about 500 miles away from the Cataract City but it serves as a shocking reminder how people anywhere can be cruel and insensitive at a critical moment.

Perhaps you read about it. Or saw the TV reports on the homeless drifter that pushed a Korean immigrant man off a platform onto a subway track at the Times Square station in New York City. Naeem Davis, 30, the drifter, told police the pair had bumped into each other before reaching the turnstiles and the arguing continued on the platform.

The horror was captured by freelance reporter R. Umar Abbasi standing on the platform with other onlookers when Ki Suk Han, 58, went tumbling into the path of the rapidly approaching train.

A human life was on the line. The doomed man clinging to the side of the platform was looking desperately for a hand, any hand, to grab. No one bothered to reach out. That swooshing sound behind the two bright front lights was coming closer. No hero in the crowd this time.

The photographer apparently was more concerned about his dramatic photo destined for the front page of the morning tabloid. If Abassi had put down his camera to get involved in a rescue attempt, he'd miss the chance for prize-winning shot. At least that's the way I see it.

I find it hard to believe that Abassi, as he tried to justify his actions, was "too far away to help." If that were the case, why did he dash toward the scene — instantly after spotting a person "flying through the air" onto the platform — and keep shooting and flashing as he admitted himself. His argument that the flickering light on his camera was intended to alert the engineer that he should stop before the Times Square station is tough to accept.

There is, as always, another side to the story, as I was reminded Friday by a journalism professor. 

"A news photographer has to be an observer. He can't be a participant," said Roy Gutterman, an associate professor of communications and journalism in the S.I. Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University.

From an ethics standpoint, Gutterman emphasized, a photographer has to remain on the sidelines and cover the news. He cited numerous situations when photographers assigned to war zones (e.g. Vietnam) and Third World countries took photos for an accurate record of what was happening as opposed, of course, to the spoon-fed spin that could emerge from the Pentagon and elsewhere. Sometimes that meant watching an assassination, a guy plunging off a cliff, or a protestor self-immolating.

"I know it sounds heartless, callous and even inhumane," Gutterman said, "But the line between telling and being a participant is firm." Gutterman, who also is the director of the Tully Center for Free Speech on the Syracuse campus, added: "I stand by the press (photographer) in this case."

Even if the photographer is absolved in the situation, why didn't didn't one of the other people standing on the platform intervene? Dr. Celia Fisher, a specialist in ethics education at Fordham University, said in an interview Thursday: "We certainly have a moral obligation as human beings to help people if we can." Fisher also noted there's a "diffusion of responsibility," where the more people there are around, the more likely they are to act on their own. They think someone else close by is going to do it or can do it better. 

Anne Klaeysen, who heads the New York Society for Ethical Culture, told a New York Post reporter: "I empathize with those there (at the scene), and I don't know what I would have done. But had they assessed the situation, once he's on the tracks, for goodness sake, reach your arm out!"

The venerable New York Times, which often pontificates on such issues, stayed above the fray this past week. It simply stated: "The image is undeniably vivid. But should it have been published?"

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A FACE LIFT: Overheard in a doctor's office in the Parkway Apartments: "I was going to have plastic surgery until I noticed  that my physician's office was full of portraits by Picasso."

Contact reporter Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246.