Why the American Media Sanitize War Coverage

During the 1976 persecution of Larry Flynt for violating our hypocritical sense of decency, the pornographer mailed 400,000 brochures to Hamilton County residents. The 12-page flyer asked, "What Is Obscene?" His answer: war. The gory color images of civi

Sep 15, 2009 at 2:06 pm

During the 1976 persecution of Larry Flynt for violating our hypocritical sense of decency, the pornographer mailed 400,000 brochures to Hamilton County residents. The 12-page flyer asked, “What Is Obscene?” His answer: war. The gory color images of civilian and combat casualties made his point.

I don’t know how many people he persuaded, but similar questions of taste arose with angry vigor in the past couple weeks.

It began when the Associated Press distributed a color photo of Lance Cpl. Joshua “Bernie” Bernard after a rocket-propelled grenade tore off a leg in Afghanistan. With his blood visibly streaming, other Marines try unsuccessfully to save him.

AP photographer Julie Jacobson’s image is a rare, vivid photo of dying solider distributed by an American news organization. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates condemned AP’s decision to ignore the request of Bernard’s family to spike the photo.

John Daniszewski, AP senior managing editor, said he respected Gates’ view but, “We thought that the image told a story of sacrifice; it told a story of bravery. We felt that the picture told a story that people needed to see and be aware of.”

With rare exception, American news media consciously sanitize our wars, protecting us from images that would illustrate the cost. In part it’s because American editors try to avoid angering readers and viewers at the cost of providing information and images that could enhance debates over public policy.

In pursuit of their goals, these editors and TV news directors use a double standard when deciding whether to publish images of violence.

If the subject is local, the answer usually is “No.” That’s why you rarely see victims of shootings, knifings or traffic or workers buried in trenching accidents. Similarly, if the subject is a wounded or dying American soldier, the answer usually is “No.”

If the victim isn’t local or American, however, the chances of publication increase.

It wasn’t that long ago that everyone published (and republished) the modern classic photo from Kent State in 1970, when the Ohio National Guard fired on students. The enduring image is of a young woman kneeling by a wounded young man, screaming into the camera.

It won the Pulitzer Prize that year. Of course, by then, we’d seen American dead and wounded from Vietnam.

Today, that Kent State photo probably would fail the Wheaties Test: “We don’t want people to open our paper and throw up in their Wheaties.” Timidity also is reflected in another common excuse for self-censorship: “We are guests in our subscribers’ homes and we don’t want to be offensive.”

Whooooooohooooooo. News media shouldn’t be offensive. What about omnipresent celebrity news that adores unmarried pregnancy, fornication, drive-by rehab and divorce among the young and pretty? What about detailed (but don’t try this at home) coverage of homicides? What about letters from wingnuts who hate Bush or Obama and see conspiracies everywhere that explain all that they fear?

When it comes to our wars, no one knows how few angry readers it takes to intimidate an editor, publisher or news director. It would take a pretty strong spine to resist of failing to “support our troops.” Those callers, letter writers and bloggers equate dissent over policy with unpatriotic betrayal of the military. When it comes to sending our forces into combat, it’s “America, Love It or Leave It.”

Most of AP’s 1,400 members did not publish the photo of the dying Marine. Being “on the team” was more important than their commitment to the First Amendment. War, sure. Wheaties, uh-uh.

It’s a big deal because it happens so rarely. Not long ago, The New York Times caught shit for publishing photos of a wounded American falling in Iraq. The paper said it delayed publication until the military confirmed that the wounded soldier survived. That also was The Times’ defense when the firestorm broke.

The photo, like that of the dying Marine in Afghanistan, broke the unwritten code about images of “our” wounded.

The AP photo won’t change anything. In an era when editors and broadcast executives would rather participate in a watermelon eating contest than lose audience or advertisers, war will continue to be sanitized for Americans.

The irony, of course, is the ease with which other images are available on the Internet. That underlines the futility of the American self-censorship at the same time it supports the editors’ assertion, “If you want gore, you know where to go.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• There are other sides to this argument over war photos. If our vital national interests are at stake in Iraq and Afghanistan, do photos of American dead and dying erode public support for a war? Put another way, do we have to see dead, dying and wounded soldiers to understand war is nasty and lethal?

If editors choose to ignore these photos, does that unjustifiably undermine the public’s need to know what is being done in its name? Do the images enhance or inflame debate over the public policies in whose cause these wars are being fought?

Good people will disagree.

Then there is our attitude toward death and grieving. Is it really intrusive to show a dying or dead soldier? Is a battlefield death truly private? Do images of identified wounded, dying and dead add to the grief of families? Or does it give others an idea of the families’ grief and memorialize the loss?

If vivid photos aren’t going to be used, why do news media send photographers into combat, where many become casualties?

• A local analogy to war images involves the evolving practice of Cincinnati news media to avoid showing victims of violence: shootings, stabbings, drownings, construction or trenching accidents and road crashes. Even showing covered bodies is too strong today. Instead, we get TV images of flashing emergency lights and yellow tape, mug shots, yearbook photos or family snaps of victims or images of where something happened but not of what happened. “It was in this house, only hours ago…”

• Questions about violent images are as old as photography. Long before still cameras could stop action, photographers made static images of war. One of the earliest was Roger Fenton, who took hundreds of photos in 1855 during the Crimean War. He reportedly worked under the admonition, “No dead bodies.” So he photographed soldiers behind the lines and civilian visitors. It’s a record of a certain kind, but it wasn’t combat photography.

Americans are familiar with Civil War photos by and attributed to Matthew Brady. Many include unidentified soldiers lying where they died.

It was a long time before Americans saw their war dead again. Wars large and small continued, although photography did not change much in the following half century: Static images dominated. Cameras couldn’t catch moving action effectively.

By World War I, cameras were easier to carry, lenses gathered more light, film replaced glass plates and shutters could stop some action. Combat photographers, especially on the Western Front, captured soldiers in action but mass circulation dailies were reluctant to show of soldiers hanging dead on barbed wire or mutilated by incoming shells.

There were photos of men falling, but in the distance. Usually, we saw men marching to and from the front, living in trenches, trying to cross hellish mud, being led away after gas blinded them or “going over the top” as they left their trenches to face machine-gun fire and omnipresent barbed wire. U.S. Marines provided plenty of photo ops in their assault on Belleau Wood, especially machinegunners.

Americans saw photos of Chinese victims of Japanese aggression in the 1930s and death in Spain during its Civil War. The iconic photo from that European prelude to World War II shows a Spanish Republican soldier dropping his rifle and falling with what appears to be a bullet hitting his head.

When the United States entered World War II, government censorship suppressed photos of dead Americans until President Roosevelt lifted that order in 1943. He reportedly feared flagging public support for the war and thought the photos would aid the cause. Life Magazine published photos of dead Marines, partially buried by sand on a Pacific beach, and later a photo of an American soldier killed by a German sniper with blood still flowing across the floor.

Few photos of the Korean war show American dead, with the dramatic exception of the soles of the boots of dead, frozen Marines stacked in the back of a truck.

Vietnam was different. Combat photographers went with the troops. We saw stunning color photos of wounded, dying and dead Americans. TV showed body bags.

Many in the military were convinced that the news media — reporters and photographers — undermined public support for a winnable war. Such news media access was a “mistake” the Pentagon avoided when we invaded Grenada, Panama and Iraq in the first Gulf War.

Thinking changed by the second invasion of Iraq after 9/11. Reporters and photographers were embedded with combat units. They caught the moments when Americans were wounded or killed. Rarely, however, were those images used in this country.

Censorship was self-censorship. It still is.

• Another New York Times reporter kidnapped in Afghanistan, another voluntary news blackout and finally a bloody rescue that ended in the death of his colleague and a British commando.

The reporter, Stephen Farrell, and Sultan Munadi, a respected Afghan journalist and Ferrell’s interpreter, were kidnapped while covering the effects of the NATO bombing of two Taliban-hijacked fuel tankers.

Farrell is a Brit. Top British officials in London approved the rescue when they were told the kidnap victims might be handed over to Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

The entire episode again raises the question of when is a story is worth a life.

Why did Ferrell’s editors send him to Kunduz or approve the venture? We knew that the NATO air strike was carried out without proper permissions and that dozens of hijackers and other Afghans died. What did he hope to learn?

London’s Daily Telegraph, with its close ties to the Forces, says Farrell ignored what Foreign Secretary David Millibrand called “very strong advice that it was extremely dangerous to be in that area.” The Telegraph also reported that senior officers said “Farrell was captured in an area of Kunduz province which is a renowned Taliban stronghold with no government control.” One source said, “When you look at the number of warnings this person had it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier's life.”

Pursuing the story killed Munadi, rescuer Cpl. John Harrison, 29, from the Parachute Regiment, and unnamed Afghans.

Whether the raid was needed is another issue. Munadi’s family said Munadi used his cell phone to assure them that negotiations for their release were going well shortly before the commandos arrived.

Writing later in a New York Times blog, Farrell said Munadi died trying to protect him, and he had thanked his British rescuers as they flew from the site. “There were some celebrations among the mainly British soldiers on the aircraft home, which soon fell silent. It later emerged that one of the rescue party was also dead, mortally wounded during the raid. His blood-soaked helmet was in front of me throughout the flight. I thanked everyone who was still alive to thank. It wasn’t, and never will be, enough.”

Afghan anger over the incident focuses on Munadi, a veteran New York Times interpreter. Farrell put him in danger, and the British left Munadi’s body for his family to claim.

Writing about the rescue, The Times touched on these issues, saying, “Walking in front of Mr. Farrell as they tried to reach British forces, Mr. Munadi stepped out from behind a wall, raised his hands and identified himself as a journalist. A hail of bullets immediately felled him. ‘He was trying to protect me up to the last minute,’ Mr. Farrell said. “The death of Mr. Munadi illustrated two grim truths of the war in Afghanistan: vastly more Afghans than foreigners have died battling the Taliban, and foreign journalists are only as good as the Afghan reporters who work with them.”

The Times might also have asked whether the story was worth it and whether veteran war reporters like Farrell create unacceptable risks for local interpreters and drivers who lack their experience and know they must please their employers.

• Another issue, one that I wrote about in an earlier column, involves the four-day news blackout on the Ferrell/Munadi kidnapping in Afghanistan while on assignment. Self-censorship runs against the grain for American journalists but when it might save a life, it’s an ethical option. As Times editor Bill Keller told NPR, his paper and others have held kidnap stories before, and not only for journalists.

• Finally, back to an earlier point: Those warnings for journalists to stay away from a place or event. If journalists took every warning seriously, we’d be at the mercy of military and other government spokesmen who sometimes lie, and sometimes pass on bad information on which they rely. We’ve had too many examples of this in recent combat to be sanguine.

Pentagon lies were so wide and deep that the Bush administration awarded a Silver Star to Pat Tillman after he was killed by other Americans in Afghanistan. The administration even lied to Tillman’s family about the circumstances of his death.

And I mean lies, where the speaker knows what happened and lies about it, and then sometimes lies about lying.

Before that, there were Pentagon lies about the capture and “rescue” of Jessica Lynch in Iraq. We know what happened because reporters told us. We know about Abu Ghraib because reporters told us. It goes on and on.

Editors can press for better video, better photos, more vivid copy, but it’s up to journalists whether to ignore evident danger. The Wall Street Journal’s Danny Pearl took the chance and was beheaded. Sultan Munadi took a chance and was gunned down.

Which takes us back to the anger of the British military. Why should soldiers risk their lives when events turn out badly for civilians who had a choice?

• And now to an issue closer to home with nothing like the gravity of violent images. Why do news media promote phony “polls” which invite partisans to stuff the ballot boxes? These are anything but valid tests of public opinion. All they capture is the responses of highly motivated people.

WKRC-TV does it nightly. Sometimes, the question is so stunningly stupid that it recalls the worst of the Minnesota Meat and Potatoes Inventory (MMPI), so beloved of psychologists. “Would you rather watch butterflies or eat raw artichokes?” The wrong answer sends you off the authoritarian scale and into therapy.

Recently, The Enquirer invited responses to the decision by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk to ban a Sister of Charity from teaching in archdiocesan institutions. The issue is her support for women’s ordination to the all-male clergy. The online poll accompanied the story about the ban. Under the headline, “What do you think?” the paper asked “Should the Church allow women to be ordained as priests?” The options were yes, no and “I’m undecided.” When I last checked the results, it was 2-1 “No.”

Since I don’t know how many local bloggers and social networks worked to get out the vote among conservative Catholics or whether non-Catholics voted, the results is as meaningless as the poll.

On the other hand, if online readers enjoy the Enquirer site(s) more because they have a sense of participation, more power to the paper. Please, however, don’t present the results as meaningful.

Pilarczyk is not going to stray from his understanding of church dogma, doctrine and teaching because Enquirer readers respond to a poll. And Sister Louise Akers isn’t like to recant because of an Enquirer poll or Pilarczyk’s ban.

Finally, the primary argument for the best of polls — that they’re snapshots of public opinion at any one moment — can’t be invoked here. So the only justification that I can see is to mislead online readers into the warm, fuzzy feeling that Local 12 and The Enquirer care what they think.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]