Today’s Herald reports that Peter Smith, the freelance photographer and BU photojournalism professor who took the picture showing Justice Antonin Scalia making an insulting/obscene/you-make-the-call gesture inside Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, has been fired by the Boston Archdiocese. According to the Herald, the Pilot (the Archdiocese’s newspaper), for whom Smith was on assignment at the time, had made a “journalistic decision” not to run the photograph, but Smith released it to the Herald. As a result, the Archdiocese said, “we will no longer engage his services as a freelance photographer.”
Smith is standing by his report that, in addition to making the gesture, Scalia uttered an Italian obscenity: “vaffanculo,” which means “f*&k you,” or literally, “go and take it in your a&&.” (I’m trying to keep this post work-safe.)
Of course, the notion that the Pilot could make a credible “journalistic decision” not only not to publish the photograph but to refuse to release it to anyone else is laughable. Like it or not, what Scalia did was newsworthy – it may not be the most earth-shattering story ever reported, but Supreme Court Justices are important public figures, and Scalia’s gesture and comment were in response to a legitimate question about his conduct on the bench (he was asked about his response to those who say his very public embrace of and endorsement of religion calls into question his ability to rule impartially on matters of church and state). Therefore, a photograph of him doing it was by definition newsworthy too. If that photograph causes the Pilot some embarrassment, too bad. Not releasing the photo has lots of names, but “journalism” isn’t one of them.
UPDATE (4/1): I’m not the only one who questions the Pilot’s “journalistic decision.” The Herald has collected some quotes backing Smith, and reports that Smith has been receiving supportive emails from around the country:
Peter Smith said heâs received dozens of e-mails from across the country praising him for standing up to âbig institutions.â âIâm feeling pretty good about it,â Smith said last night….
Smith shouldnât have been fired, said Jerry Lanson, a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News and an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College. âIt has something of a chilling effect when a photojournalist is releasing something that is news and loses his job for it,â Lanson said. Graham Phaup, executive director of the Institute for Global Ethics, said, âIt was the right thing for him to do. I think what he did was he followed his conscience . . . in order to set the record straight.â