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May 1, 2004

Iconography in the Media's Hands

Sheila Lennon writes about those disturbing pictures of American soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners. She focuses on the wired man on the box:

There are more photos, and video, but this one photo above -- part scarecrow, part crucifixion -- is the one that sticks. Like the photo of the fleeing girl, her clothes burned off by napalm in Vietnam, it will be the icon for the Iraq war.

Terror? Can the person perched on that box, told he would die if aching muscles give way, be feeling anything else?

The icon for the Iraq war? Only if the members of the media strive to make it so. Only if they discard all those compelling pictures of liberation and falling statues. Only if they never bother to publish pictures of those large sections of Iraq returning to a state of life and freedom that they haven't known since the elders were children. Note Lennon's language: it will be. Not could or might, but will.

The despicable acts of a handful of idiotic soldiers — somewhere around one one-millionth of the total force — have unforgivably given these aging Boomers exactly what they wanted: hope that they can once again defeat the United States military. Pictures of Ba'athist prisoners. Pictures of coffins. Pictures like this one currently on the Providence Journal's main page:

Click on the picture and the next headline softens the message: "Marines Hand Over Positions in Fallujah." Read about two-thirds through the article, after relation of some incidents in other cities and a tally of casualties in April, and the reality shifts a little bit more:

Under the plan, a force of 600 to 1,100 Iraqis, many of them former soldiers from the Fallujah area, are to man checkpoints inside of the city. Marines will remain on or near the city's perimeter and at a later stage conduct their own patrols inside the city.

The fact that the withdrawal, such as it is, and the revelation of those photographs have hit the news at the same moment in time is unfortunate indeed. God help us if the media wins its war.

Jonah Goldberg's comments raise a worthwhile point:

I don't blame 60 Minutes for running them -- though I don't applaud them either. But a person would/could be morally obligated to leak these pictures if the army was covering it up or refusing to investigate. It doesn't sound like that was the case. So releasing the photos isn't prodding the government to do the right thing, it's encouraging millions of Arabs to hate us. That's not whistle-blowing, that's sabotage.

Interesting how reporters pick what numbers to disclose and highlight. The Baltimore Sun piece by Ariel Sabar that Lennon quotes offers only the following numbers:

The Army said yesterday that 14 of the 17 soldiers implicated in an investigation of abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison are from the 372nd. They face either criminal or administrative charges.

In contrast, an AP piece by Salah Nasrawi offers the following:

Six U.S. soldiers facing courts-martial in the abuse allegations have been reassigned in Iraq. Their boss, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, and at least seven others have been suspended from their duties at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military said.

The six seem to be the central group responsible, and although details are scarce, it would seem reasonable to guess that most of the others either knew of it at the time or found out later and are being punished for not reporting it (or similar offenses). In other words, if it's true that only the six were directly involved, the Sun almost triples the impression of the extent by making reference — without breaking down the numbers — to those "implicated." (That's assuming that the 17 figure came from a reliable source.) On this basis, Lennon declares an emblem to have been born.

Six soldiers out of a group that's currently 138,089 Americans strong. Think of the power of a handful of soldiers to tar the United States! The blame for the disproportionate damage rests centrally with the soldiers, but there's plenty of culpability for exaggerating the incident — declaring it representative, even iconic — to go around.

Posted by Justin Katz at May 1, 2004 9:15 AM
News Media

It seems to me that Goldberg is implying that since there was no need to influence government action, there was no need to run the photos. That seems rather odd to me. I don't think influencing government action should be the primary objective of the news media. Rather it should be to report the news. Now that requires making quite subjective decisions of what is news and how to tell the news story.

In this case, I think what occurred was certainly newsworthhy, but the question is should the pictures have been shown. I think the pictures add more to the story than words alone would have. That is often the case with news pictures and news video. Sometimes a news editor might decide there are other considerations that might outweigh the news value of a picture. And perhaps there were here. In particular the incitement of hatred that the pictures might cause. Those are difficult decisions, though.

Unfortunately I think the decision here as with the decisions regularly made by most of our news media today was based more on what could attract the most viewers, than other concerns. (Which doesn't necessarily mean they shouldn't have run the pictures.) I think this is a serious problem with the news media, especially TV. And I think Fox is just as guilty of that emphasis as the other channels.

Posted by: Gabriel Rosenberg at May 1, 2004 3:54 PM


I think it was absolutely necessary to use the photos.

The press has acted in a very bad and biased way, and so with a lot of people it is in the position of crying "wolf!" I know my first reactions were: "the press says this is bad - the press is always saying the war is bad," and "politicians condemn, are concerned - well when do they ever say they don't give a damn?" So? Then I saw the photos, and my reaction was "o-mi-godfather, what did these crazy degenerates do?? Oh no! Oh no!!" From then on, I took the story seriously of course.

The same people who object to the press using the photos would condemn them forty times more if the press said what anyone who is familiar with the evidence has to say, without the evidence being, well, in evidence.

The same people who have rightly condemned Muslims for saying, "yes terrorism is bad ... BUT" are now saying "we don't approve of this kind of treatment of prisoners of war ... BUT." They should just have stuck consistently to their original and correct moral standard.

The same people who rightly complain that the media cover up bad images and so on, and you have to look in on sites like Little Green Footballs to see what's happening ... suddenly seem to think it would have been OK for the media to conceal the truth about our own misdeeds. I don't think so!

This isn't about what's patriotic, or convenient, it's about what's right. We have no right to dodge this bullet. Those shocking stories are true, so it is right that we get our noses rubbed in them.

And by the same token, we have to continue to fight the war on terror and win it, because of other things that are also the truth.

Posted by: David Blue at May 2, 2004 11:55 AM


I agree with a lot of what you say. However, among the problems that we face is the way in which the media picks and chooses what to show, what to hype, and so on. If, as you put it, the media had been showing the LGF-type photos all along, these photos would be less of an issue.

I don't, as a matter of fact, that many people would have disbelieved or condemned the press for describing the incident and evidence. Particularly if the military were (as I believe they would have been) open about what had happened and what steps had been taken in response. This is where the point about the photos' not being needed to spur the military comes in.

I'd also suggest that we're talking a significantly different species of "but" in this incident and in the case of terrorism. First of all, I haven't heard many "buts" in this case. Second of all, those that I have heard (and written) have been very careful to remain contextual "buts": "but it was only six degenerates."

Personally, I don't object to that sort of "but" from Muslims (indeed, sometimes some folks need such reminders). However, objection arises when it becomes: "but you have to admit that they have a point."

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 2, 2004 5:03 PM

Hi, Justin.

That's a very reasonable reply.

I'm probably not in a good frame of mind to debate it, because I'm still steaming mad.

Posted by: David Blue at May 3, 2004 12:51 AM

As a serving military officer (reservist), I definitely believe the photos should be shown. However, to do so without indicating that there are ongoing investigations is irresponsible, as it does not accurately reflect what is occurring. If accurately portraying events is not the primary responsibility of journalists, then there is no such profession as journalism--they're just fiction writers who base their tales on real life.

Posted by: Jem at May 4, 2004 6:31 PM