The man—and the media—on fire

The coverage of Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation, the undeniability of his protest, and the power of independent journalism.

Content warning: This post discusses graphic video and suicide. Please take care when reading.

It’s a fact that on Sunday, February 25, US Air Force Serviceman Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC as an act of protest against Israel’s war in Gaza. It’s a fact that Bushnell said to the camera, “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” as he recorded the moments leading up to him dousing himself with an accelerant and sparking a lighter. It’s a fact that law enforcement officers pointed weapons at him, and one yelled, “I don’t need guns! I need fire extinguishers!” It’s a fact that Bushnell died at the hospital several hours later. It’s a fact that he was 25 years old.

These facts, as many of us saw for ourselves in the heart-rending video, have managed to be obscured in the days since Bushnell’s protest and death with the conversation turning to themes of “glorifying” suicide; that he was a religious nut-turned-anarchist; that he was simply mentally ill. The way in which the public has been allowed to digest what happened has felt heavily policed.

“Whether mental health played a role or not is not really relevant,” Nicholas Slayton, a freelance journalist and Contributing Editor at Task and Purpose who covered the immediate aftermath of Bushnell’s protest, told me. “The story is actually, in a way, kind of objective. He said what he was going to do, why he was doing it, and what it was for. And so the idea that it should be reframed as a mental illness story is just a huge logical leap.”

I watched carefully as the coverage unfolded in the hours following Bushnell’s self-immolation, following along mainly on Bluesky, where I mostly hang out outline these days. I noticed there was very little information, with really the only substantive stuff being links to independent journalist Talia Jane’s reporting on Twitter. 

Very quickly, a sense of extreme caution and squeamishness took hold of many of the journalists attempting to piece together what happened. Even though Jane knew exactly what happened—and told them as much.

“I was sending them the stuff so they could verify everything I reported,” Jane told me by phone Wednesday. “They had all of that information, but because the cops didn't confirm it, they were like, ‘Well, I don't know.’” 

Jane says reporters from the New York Times, CNN, BBC and others reached out via Twitter DM to ask for her original reporting and sources so they could write stories of their own.

After all, Jane had watched the video of Bushnell’s protest on his Twitch channel with her own eyes just a couple of hours after it happened. She screen recorded it, acknowledging the ephemeral nature of the internet, and after the stream was taken down Sunday, she was one of few people in possession of a copy of the video. She later posted it on Twitter with the graphic portions blurred out after discussing it with Bushnell’s closest friends, who wanted the world to see it. In the eyes of legacy media, Jane was at once a journalist and a source.

I asked Jane, at a very basic level, what should we even call Bushnell’s act?

“Well, it is an extreme form of protest. But it is, ultimately, a protest,” she said. “People choose to get arrested in protest. We don't call it a crime.”

No matter what people call it, there’s no way to prepare for covering, as Jane put it, an extremely unique set of circumstances. She wrote in a piece for Rolling Stone on Thursday:

There are plenty of media guides and examinations about best practices for reporting graphic content. There is nothing about how to navigate the scrambled fog your brain becomes after witnessing a man burn himself alive. To watch him choke on the smoke of his own flesh to scream “Free Palestine” until he no longer can, to watch him stand at attention, silent, before finally collapsing, only his charred leg visible onscreen — and then to try to ethically and comprehensively report what is clearly a major breaking story, absent institutional support to help gather, process, and publish information.

From Jane’s perspective, it was almost as if Bushnell had anticipated the media’s reticence to accept his protest at face value.

“He kind of formatted this in a way that made it unavoidable,” she said. “I don't know if he did this intentionally, but he kind of circumvented that willful ignorance that permeated the previous incident where someone self-immolated, and is suspected to have done so against genocide in Palestine.” (The other incident to which she referred received little coverage when it happened in December, and the public never learned the individual’s identity.) 

It was the unavoidability that caught Slayton’s eye on Sunday—that, and Jane’s meticulous reporting.

“When you have these definitive facts that objectively happened, that were on camera and had been verified or are being verified in the moment—just the sheer basic facts—you should not be afraid to publish that,” Slayton told me. 

The undeniability of Bushnell’s motives didn’t stop political groups from trying to obscure the gravity of his protest. “Anti-Israel and far-left accounts have hailed Bushnell as a martyr, celebrating his act for its impact – primarily raising awareness of the Palestinians’ plight,” the Anti-Defamation League—the same organization set to honor Jared Kushner for his diplomatic work in Israel—wrote in a blog post on Tuesday in a clear attempt to delegitimize the protest.

It also helped that Jane really was the first to report it, setting the predicate for subsequent coverage and making it clear that other outlets framing it differently were actually going out of their way to do so. Even so, she had to work hard to convince larger, corporate-owned outlets that this story was exactly what it appeared to be: a protest in response to the genocide of civilians in Gaza. 

As an independent journalist myself who’s reporting often doesn’t get its due, I asked Jane how we gain legitimacy from big news orgs (all while eating their lunch).

“I think that we make them unable to ignore the work that we're doing,” she said. “The quality of it, the factuality of it. We make it unignorable, and by doing so, affirm to them that they’re obsolete and we're running circles around them. And that they will never be able to catch up unless they adopt our mode of conduct.”

I wanted to share a quick update to the story of Nex Benedict, the trans teenager in Owasso, Oklahoma who died after being attacked in a school bathroom.

The idea that Nex “did not die from trauma,” as the police department stated last Friday, didn’t sit well with me. But still, most major news outlets decided to run with the line. As I reported Monday, Public Information Officer Lt. Nick Boatman hung up on me when I pressed him to explain what was clearly an interpretation of the Medical Examiner’s report insinuating that Nex did not die as a result of the attack.

Then on Tuesday, NBC News shared this:

“We did not interpret that in any way,” he said of the word “trauma,” which he said was used by the medical examiner’s office. He said that the medical examiner’s office didn’t say it had ruled out the fight as causing or contributing to Benedict’s death and that “people shouldn’t make assumptions either way.”

The report included no mention of my or Judd Legum’s earlier reporting casting doubt on the veracity of the police statement, and which ultimately led to this admission.

As Evan Urquhart of Assigned Media put it: “The practice of asking police departments to clarify official statements, particularly when such statements are vaguely worded and issued under unusual circumstances, would normally be considered part of standard journalistic procedure.”

But these are not, as we’re reminded time and again, normal times.

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