Sanitized for our protection

The rest of the world is shown far more graphic war images than the U.S. media allows. Is the American public being insulated from the true horrors of the battlefield?

Published April 12, 2003 12:55AM (EDT)

The images of cheering Iraqis celebrating the demise of Saddam Hussein and dragging a demolished statue of the dictator through the streets of a liberated Baghdad will be linked forever with this war. It was the sort of defining moment that American media outlets have thirsted for, a feel-good picture of a coalition-led victory that could be played and replayed.

But the war is not yet over, and more fighting and attacks are certain, as painfully proved by Thursday's suicide bombing at a U.S. checkpoint in Baghdad. Once the thrill of the falling statue fades, news outlets will again be confronted with the grisly reality of grave injury and death -- among U.S. soldiers, Iraqi soldiers and civilians. But if the past three weeks are any guide, the American news media will not run them. And as a result, American news consumers will have little idea of what happens when the world's mightiest military power unleashes sustained attacks, albeit targeted ones, on an impoverished, despot-ruled nation, or what happens when that regime, fighting for its life, answers in kind.

To be sure, there have been deeply troubling pictures, but sometimes even they have a sentimental overlay. Perhaps the most famous battlefield photo to date, one that ran on newspaper front pages across the country, is a haunting shot of an Army doctor in full military gear squatting on the dirt and holding a young Iraqi girl in his arms just minutes after her mother had been killed in crossfire. The New York Times, Time magazine, and others have, occasionally, run photos that featured more jarring looks at the injured and dead.

But those are exceptions. While newspapers, magazines and newscasts have overwhelmed us with stylized photographs of American soldiers either in battle, helping civilians, enjoying each other's camaraderie, or showing off the latest in war technology, the violence of war has often been treated as a danger zone, forbidden, an afterthought. Few argue that the U.S. press should follow lead of the Arab press -- Al-Jazeera in particular -- by singling out Iraqi civilian casualties and using gruesome footage to illustrate them. That, too, leads to a distorted view.

"I'm sure there's an enormous amount of carnage out there that's just not being shown," says Christopher Hanson, who reported on the first Gulf War for Hearst newspapers. "The coverage gives a false impression of what war is like for people in America, who have a tendency to be in denial about it."

Compared to its counterparts around the world, the American press tends to be more reluctant to use graphic images of bodily destruction and death that are the inevitable -- and intended -- byproduct of war. "It's seen as in poor taste, uncivil," says Hanson, who now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. But in a culture that's becoming increasingly drenched in violence, it seems odd that war imagery is being treated more and more timidly. When a country goes to war, shouldn't Americans understand what's being done in their name?

"It's something we wrestle with every day," says Cecilia Bohand, foreign pictures editor for the New York Times. "We're not trying to run posters for the Army, which sometimes it does feel like when we're not running [images of] the other side. Some of us feel we should be a little more graphic."

The Times has, in some instances, pushed the envelope with more harrowing war images, such as a dead soldier or a dead child. And when that happens, readers react with anger. "We're flooded with letters," says Bohand. "Readers don't want to see it."

That can happen even with word portraits. National Public Radio got angry feedback from its audience after reporter Anne Garrels offered this vivid description for listeners after a U.S. cruise missile had just killed 14 Baghdad civilians: "The crowd brought out a severed hand and were shaking it ... basically saying, 'This is your liberation?'"

Others may be searching for gripping, Vietnam-style imagery, but the brief duration of the Iraq War makes it difficult to produce such pictures, says Doug Sehres, director of photography at the San Antonio Express-News. "We started to see some pretty intense photos come out of the battle for the port city of Umm Qasr. But that battle lasted several days compared to several years for the war in Vietnam. So there was a relatively small opportunity to take the type of pictures we're accustomed to seeing in warfare."

Still, there's an obvious trend among the war images being printed and broadcast in the American press, says Dennis Dunleavy, a professor of photojournalism at San Jose State University in California who has closely tracked the images of this war. He sees the images falling into three distinct categories:

1. Technology: "It's our power against the rest of the world and these images reflect that. Tanks, soldiers, shots from aircraft carriers, night-vision pictures. That's all about technology."

2. Victims: "But not casualties. It's images of refugees, displaced people squatting on the ground while soldiers stand above them. The dominant interest is the coalition troops against a background of helping the homeless or disenfranchised."

3. Soldiers: "Lots of clear pictures of soldiers giving directions, on the move. They're technically beautiful photographs and amazingly well shot for being in a war zone." (Pictures of injured American soldiers taken by embedded photographers are embargoed for 72 hours, which is one reason so few have appeared in newspapers; editors are not interested in running three-day-old photographs.)

But overall, says Dunleavy, "there's a sterile quality to the photographs. They're technically clean, but there's not a lot of conflict or intensity to them. I am seeing images in newspapers and magazines, but I'm not confident that they're really telling the whole story."

Newsweek's current issue is Exhibit A. Including the cover photo of rescued prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, the magazine runs 27 war-related photographs. Of those, 21 are of coalition soldiers in action (storming a building, rescuing Lynch, being kissed by a local Iraqi), or relaxing (swimming in a river, biding time, washing their hair). The remaining handful of snapshots include a charred Iraqi airplane and just a glimpse of a single wounded Iraqi. Newsweek's message is clear: The war is about American soldiers, not the Iraqi people.

The New Yorker, which ran just a single war snapshot this week -- a bloodied man reaching out to comfort a bandaged friend inside a Baghdad hospital -- did more to capture the consequences of war than Newsweek did with more than two dozen shots.

The current Time magazine, whose images are also clearly centered on stylized portraits of the U.S. military in action, did a far better job of communicating a complete picture of the conflict, including the grisly effects of the battle. Time ran several large, haunting, even graphic photographs -- one of a badly disfigured Iraqi boy in a rundown hospital who lost his arms, and his whole family, during a neighborhood firefight. Another two-page photo spread featured an aging, inconsolable Iraqi man sitting amid the rubble of what used to be his home.

Time also ran a picture of a dead Iraqi civilian, a farmer who refused to stop his car at a checkpoint. "The Iraqi man was lying across the cab with his feet hanging out the passenger side door," Time correspondent Alex Perry wrote, "his head snapped back, a diamond-shaped entry wound just below his right eye; the fourth finger on his right hand had been shot off, and there was a large patch of blood under his right arm."

Time's picture and graphic description highlights another peculiar press standard, the reluctance to show death and severe injury. If it must be shown, the U.S. media will show foreigners first, and then, as a last resort, Americans. For instance, this week when several foreign journalists were killed after the U.S. shelled a hotel that many call home in Baghdad, virtually all the American TV news channels, and scores of print outlets, ran images of frantic friends dragging the wrapped body of a injured photographer through the halls of the hotel in search of medical help. He later died. But the war has produced no standout image of a gravely wounded or dead American.

Literally from the first day of the war, American cable news outlets made clear how they were going to deal with the politically explosive issue of civilian casualties in a war to liberate Iraq. Just hours after the U.S. launched its opportunity bombing strike on Saddam, hoping to kill him before the full-on invasion began, CNN scored its first mini-coup; it had a reporter who spoke Arabic inside a local hospital where some wounded civilians had been taken. As she began to describe the scene, which included some injured children, the CNN anchor quickly cut away from the report for less emotional discussion about the military strike.

Fast-forward three weeks into the war and U.S. television coverage seems almost immune to the notion of covering, let alone caring about, civilian bombing victims. Take the most recent assassination attempt on Saddam, where a U.S. bombing attack left a 60-foot-deep crater in the Baghdad neighborhood where he was said to have been Monday night. The attack raised serious ethical questions, such as whether the U.S. military, which has insisted it's doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, should have dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on a Baghdad neighborhood, damaging 20 homes and dozens of shops, and doing so on a single eyewitness tip that Saddam may have been nearby. "When the broken body of the 20-year-old woman was brought out torso first, then her head," the AP reported, "her mother started crying uncontrollably, then collapsed."

But American talking heads, busy playing the what-if game about Saddam's whereabouts, never seemed to give the issue any thought. Certainly they did not linger on images of the hellacious human carnage left in the aftermath.

Instead, CNN and others focused on the technology, airing interviews with the B-1B pilot responsible for the hit. Patched in by the Pentagon for a celebratory conference call with reporters, the pilot, whose mission according to AP may have killed 14 Iraqi civilians, including seven children, recounted how his target may have been "the big one." Many analysts now believe Saddam survived the attack, though no one seems to know for sure.

Presumably, it serves the interest of the Bush administration -- or any administration waging a war -- to limit the publication or broadcast of war's most horrific visions. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then even one photo of a dead child can move an ambivalent viewer solidly into the antiwar camp. By limiting and sanitizing the range of issues, the press may be reflexively trying to avoid charges that it is delivering antiwar propaganda in a news package.

The early days of the war brought a telling example: When several Americans were captured and taken as POWs, Al-Jazeera aired their images. But instead of treating the pictures as breaking news, most U.S. TV news organizations acquiesced to the Pentagon, which wanted to first contact the soldiers' families before the images were aired.

As for the portion of the tape that showed dead POWs, ABC News President David Westin vowed never to air the pictures because "they're not newsworthy," while CBS News President Andrew Heyward warned against showing unnecessarily gruesome pictures or anything that could be used for propaganda purposes.

That's a dramatic departure from the standard used just 10 years ago, when most major American TV press outlets -- CNN, ABC, and CBS -- all aired a grotesque news clip showing a bloated U.S. soldier's corpse being dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, after rebels there shot down American helicopters. The incident became the basis for the book and movie, "Black Hawk Down." Back then, the press did not wait for the soldier's family to be notified, nor did they worry about propaganda implications.

Today's climate raises the question whether there is now any circumstance under which the American press would show images of American soldiers killed during wartime. The answer may very well be no. Even if it wanted to, the press today can't take its traditional pictures of flag-draped military coffins, since the Pentagon has banned journalists from the airbase in Germany where bodies are flown.

During the controversy over the POW images, U.S. Gen. John Abizaid, the deputy commander for the war, urged media outlets not to run the footage. Nonetheless, he conceded to reporters: "I don't think that these pictures will damage either the psychology of our soldiers, morale of our soldiers, or the steadfastness of our government or the resolve of our people. We're a pretty tough people."

He's right. And the American press should start treating its wartime consumers that way, even if it means confronting them with realities that some might call unpleasant.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abc Cnn George W. Bush Iraq War Npr