'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Unseen Pictures 

Via thoughts on the eve of the apocalypse , the LA Times just ran an interesting piece by James Rainey on why American newspapers don't publish more images of the dead and wounded in Iraq, relative to foreign news sources. Here's the situation as sketched by Rainey:

A review of six prominent U.S. newspapers and the nation's two most popular newsmagazines during a recent six-month period found almost no pictures from the war zone of Americans killed in action. During that time, 559 Americans and Western allies died. The same publications ran 44 photos from Iraq to represent the thousands of Westerners wounded during that same time.

Many photographers and editors believe they are delivering Americans an incomplete portrait of the violence that has killed 1,797 U.S. service members and their Western allies and wounded 12,516 Americans.

The article cites five reasons for the above:

(1) Logistics:

"With a relative handful of photographers at any time covering a nation the size of California, a probing camera is usually absent when a guerrilla attack erupts. Scenes of roadside bombings typically show only a burned-out armored vehicle."

(2) Intervention by military handlers:

"On other occasions, photographers find themselves thwarted by their military handlers. In one case last summer, troops jumped in the way to block pictures of the dead and wounded being rushed to a hospital in Najaf." [ ...]

Hondros, the Getty Images photographer, took pictures early this year that provoked a particularly strong reaction [here's a link to these pictures]. They showed children in the terrifying moments after an Army patrol accidentally shot their parents to death.

Published in Newsweek and several newspapers, the pictures sparked discussion of the military's rules of engagement with civilian vehicles and provoked an outpouring of aid for the "orphans of Tall Afar." They also resulted in Hondros being banned from any further work with the unit, part of the 25th Infantry Division.

Officers with the unit, which patrolled the town near the Syrian border, said they thought they had an understanding with the photographer that he would hold the pictures until they could investigate. Hondros said he had made no such agreement.

"The military does hold over your head the ultimate trump card that if you do something they don't like, they can boot you out," said Joe Raedle, another war photographer for Getty Images. "But for the most part, it doesn't keep you from doing your job."

(3) Self-censorship among photo-journalists:

"Photojournalists sometimes withhold the most striking images from Iraq on their own.

When 22 people died just before Christmas in the bombing of a mess hall near Mosul, a Virginia newspaper photographer was closest to the action. Thrown to the ground amid dead and dying servicemen, he sent many images that ran around the world. But he believed the photos of a soldier who died by his side were too personal, and perhaps too gruesome, to transmit home"

(4) Editorial fear of backlash:

"When they do show images of casualties on the American side, newspaper executives can count on a backlash. Newark's Star-Ledger received about two dozen complaints when it ran the picture of Babbitt on its front page.

Complaints to the News Tribune of Tacoma about the 'insensitivity' of the photo prompted Executive Editor Dave Zeeck to write an explanatory essay on Page 2 of the main news section. Zeeck told readers that he believed the picture, taken by John Moore of the Associated Press, epitomized the sacrifice of the American soldier."

(5) The instability of Iraq:

"At any given time in recent months, from three to 13 photographers have been on assignment with the military, a U.S. Army official said. And those who remain 'in country' find their movements increasingly limited by the violence.

'Compared to the pope's funeral or Martha Stewart or the Michael Jackson trial, there is nobody here,' said Jim MacMillan, part of the Associated Press' Pulitzer Prize-winning team of photographers in Iraq. Americans, he said, 'are missing the war. The embedded perspective is going vastly undercovered, with some exceptions, and that is the only place you can cover the risk and the price being paid by Americans.'"

The article de-emphasizes the role of official Bush administration policies that seek to suppress the public dissemination of images of American casualties in Iraq, which is odd given that said policies are clearly a factor -- for example, as was widely reported in 2003, the White House banned photographic coverage of funerals and the "arrival ceremonies" of the Iraq war dead: (from the Washington Post):

[The Bush administration] has ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all military bases.

In March, on the eve of the Iraq war, a directive arrived from the Pentagon at U.S. military bases. "There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover [Del.] base, to include interim stops," the Defense Department said, referring to the major ports for the returning remains.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the military-wide policy actually dates from about November 2000 -- the last days of the Clinton administration -- but it apparently went unheeded and unenforced, as images of caskets returning from the Afghanistan war appeared on television broadcasts and in newspapers until early this year. Though Dover Air Force Base, which has the military's largest mortuary, has had restrictions for 12 years, others "may not have been familiar with the policy," the spokeswoman said. This year, "we've really tried to enforce it."

Although, Rainey does allude to the issue of White House pressure in a single sentence quoting freelance photographer Paul Fusco:

Veteran photographer Paul Fusco ... said he was convinced that controls on war coverage came "straight from the White House" and helped prop up support for an unjustified war.

Rainey concludes that images of the casualties of war are more common outside the US because non-Americans are more familiar with war (I kid you not):

Scenes of the war's death and destruction appear routinely in Europe and Asia, according to several journalism analysts. But that coverage has limits. Editors of several English newspapers acknowledged, for instance, that they used pictures of British casualties sparingly.

Nonetheless, foreign news outlets depict more bloodshed, perhaps in part because their audiences have often had closer contact with war and seem less willing to accept sanitized coverage, one U.S. academic said.

"Americans have a view of war that comes out of World War II, that war is a sort of sacred national cause," said Daniel C. Hallin, a communications professor at UC San Diego, who has conducted extensive reviews of TV war coverage. "We are all supposed to unite around war … because these great sacrifices are being made for freedom."

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