Man of Nine Lives

'Times' Photog Is Tagged by Controversy

Last week, the Columbia Journalism Review accused Times photographer Edward Keating of staging a photo of a six-year-old boy with a toy gun—and Keating may have made the situation worse by publicly pleading innocent after a Times editors' note dubbed him guilty of an ethical breach. Some observers assumed he would be fired, and on November 1, Times managers met with union reps to review the evidence and decide the appropriate response. Sources inside the paper say the matter remains unresolved.

Keating declined to comment. A Times spokesperson said, "As a matter of practice, we do not discuss personnel matters."

Regardless of how the mini-scandal plays out, Keating defenders say it is unfair to brand the 11-year veteran of the Times as unethical on the basis of one dubious photo, without taking into account his influence on the quality of the paper's photography, his willingness to take risks on the job, and his body of original work.

"Eddie is a mess," admits his friend, Times reporter Charlie LeDuff, "but at the same time he's a brilliant photographer. He comes back with the goods, and the goods aren't a hoodwink. I have never seen him stage, make up, or misrepresent a photo, and I've worked with him a long time."

At 46, Keating is not your typical genetically engineered Timesemployee. Acquaintances describe him as scruffy, disorganized, a chain-smoker, and an "arrogant son of a bitch" who rubs some people the wrong way. He occasionally makes mistakes in his captions, and he once accidentally dipped a digital camera in a river in Albania—an act that was cited by the Times when the company declined to send him to Afghanistan. But he gets out of trouble almost as fast as he gets into it.

For example, when Keating was detained by Serb soldiers in Kosovo in 1999, he charmed his captors by playing a mean version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" on the harmonica. In 1991, when Keating was covering the riots in Crown Heights, he was almost beaten to death by a crowd of black men. Two transit cops discovered his bloody body and took him to the hospital, where he got 50 stitches in the back of the head. The photog is said to carry photos from Crown Heights and Kosovo in his wallet to remind him what his job is about.

Keating has always landed on his feet, but few expected him to survive the wrath of Times executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd. It doesn't help that the allegations of unethical behavior came from the Columbia Journalism Review. After all, Columbia's School of Journalism is the home of the Pulitzers and a training ground for Times employees. Given the Times' cozy relationship with Columbia, CJR's allegations carry more weight than they would coming from an antagonist.

Ironically, Keating attended Columbia as an undergraduate, where he was the photo editor of the Columbia Spectator.

The photo that Keating allegedly staged shows Brandon Benzo, who is not Muslim, pointing a toy gun outside a store in Lackawanna, New York, where the FBI had arrested six alleged Al Qaeda operatives. A sign on the side of the store said, "Arabian Foods." According to CJR, three photogs saw Keating pose the boy, and one of them took a photo. Others have read into this a message of anti-Muslim bias.

Aren't many photos posed, including some that run on the front page of the Times? Yes, but the textbook principle is that photos accompanying news stories should not be staged. What matters, experts say, is the photographer's intention. But where's the evidence that Keating passed off this artsy shot as news? The caption didn't make any grand claims. It merely said the boy was "playing with a toy gun his grandmother gave him on his birthday." Times editors pulled the photo from late editions, dubbing it irrelevant.

There's another side to Keating's personality that CJR didn't explore. According to one sympathetic insider, Keating belongs to a group of "outlaws" at the Times—reporters and photogs who are known for their tendency to buck authority. Echoing many Keating defenders, the source argues that the Times needs brash people who will go behind the scenes to report a story and not merely go to the press conference.

Here's an example of how Keating has broken rules in pursuit of the news. Last January, he was on assignment, hanging out with rescue workers at ground zero in an area where journalists were prohibited. The photographer got there using a pass someone else gave him, and when a police officer discovered him, he was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. Keating and a Times spokesperson declined to comment on the resolution of the charges.

Keating has gotten a lot of attention—some say too much—for his image of a tea set covered with ash on September 11, one of the photos that won the Times a Pulitzer this year. That photo, by the way, was not the result of trespassing. The son of the tea set's owners, a friend of Times reporter David Rohde, asked his parents for permission for Rohde and Keating to enter their apartment near the World Trade Center, accompanied by a member of the National Guard.

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