The Images They Choose, and Choose to Ignore
by Robert Jensen
April 10, 2003
It was the picture of the day -- the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad -- and may end up being the picture of the war, the single image that comes to define the conflict. The message will be clear: The U.S. liberated the Iraqi people; the U.S. invasion of Iraq was just.
On Wednesday morning television networks kept cameras trained on the statue near the Palestine Hotel. Iraqis threw ropes over the head and tried to pull it down before attacking the base with a sledgehammer. Finally a U.S. armored vehicle pulled it down, to the cheers of the crowd.
It was an inspiring moment of celebration at the apparent end of a brutal dictator's reign. But as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has pointed out at other times, no one image tells the whole story. Questions arise about what is, and isn't, shown.
One obvious question: During live coverage, viewers saw a U.S. soldier drape over the face of Hussein a U.S. flag, which was quickly removed and replaced with an Iraqi flag. Commanders know that the displaying the U.S. flag suggests occupation and domination, not liberation. NBC's Tom Brokaw reported that the Arab network Al Jazeera was "making a big deal" out of the incident with the American flag, implying that U.S. television would -- and should -- downplay that part of the scene. Which choice tells the more complete truth?
Another difference between television in the U.S. and elsewhere has been coverage of Iraqi casualties. Despite constant discussion of "precision bombing," the U.S. invasion has produced so many dead and wounded that Iraqi hospitals stopped trying to count. Red Cross officials have labeled the level of casualties "incredible," describing "dozens of totally dismembered dead bodies of women and children" delivered by truck to hospitals. Cluster bombs, one of the most indiscriminate weapons in the modern arsenal, have been used by U.S. and U.K. forces, with the British defense minister explaining that mothers of Iraqi children killed would one day thank Britain for their use.
U.S. viewers see little of these consequences of war, which are common on television around the world and widely available to anyone with Internet access. Why does U.S. television have a different standard? CNN's Aaron Brown said the decisions are not based on politics. He acknowledged that such images accurately show the violence of war, but defended decisions to not air them; it's a matter of "taste," he said. Again, which choice tells the more complete truth?
Finally, just as important as decisions about what images to use are questions about what facts and analysis -- for which there may be no dramatic pictures available -- to broadcast to help people understand the pictures. The presence of U.S. troops in the streets of Baghdad means the end of the shooting war is near, for which virtually everyone in Iraq will be grateful. It also means the end of a dozen years of harsh U.S.-led economic sanctions that have impoverished the majority of Iraqis and killed as many as a half million children, according to U.N. studies, another reason for Iraqi celebration. And no doubt the vast majority of Iraqis are glad to be rid of Hussein, even if they remember that it was U.S. support for Hussein throughout the 1980s that allowed his regime to consolidate power despite a disastrous invasion of Iran.
But that does not mean all Iraqis will be happy about the ongoing presence of U.S. troops. Perhaps they are aware of how little the U.S. government has cared about democracy or the welfare of Iraqis in the past. Perhaps they watch Afghanistan and see how quickly U.S. policymakers abandoned the commitment to "not walk away" from the suffering of the Afghan people. Perhaps we should be cautious about what we infer from the pictures of celebration that we are seeing; joy over the removal of Hussein does not mean joy over an American occupation.
There is no simple way to get dramatic video of these complex political realities. But they remain realities, whether or not U.S. viewers find a full discussion of them on television.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream." He can be reached at email@example.com.