paper was presented at the Broadcast Education Association's
annual convention in April 2004, where the author participated
in a panel organized by the association's International Division.
The dark desert night
is alight with streaks of blue and red streaming across the
sky. A mosque is the symbol-laden backdrop for a news reporter
who tells the viewer that yet another bomb has been dropped
on Baghdad in this continuous barrage of explosive heavy metal.
We see none of the damage. We are hearing a visual story told
by a reporter confined to a roof and whose access to the real
facts--what exactly is being bombed, who exactly are being killed-is
barely better than ours, watching hundreds or thousands of miles
away. The significance of the bombing-a massacre of civilians
or extraordinary precision bombing of various Baathist command
headquarters--is assumed by the viewer's own perspective and
the reporter's assumptions. He really doesn't know.
The Mexican War (1846-1848)
was the first American war to be photographed. The daguerreotype
photo process was inconvenient and didn't allow photographs
on the battlefield. A slain soldier's grave often replaced images
of those killed and wounded on the field of battle.
were initially viewed in the Civil War. The photographic process
made it virtually impossible to obtain action photos, so photographers
captured images between the end of battle and burial. Deceptive
techniques used to manipulate the mind of the viewer were applied
even then. Alexander Gardner used camera angles and varied captions
so he could repeat the same photos of battlefield corpses to
represent both Union and Confederate victims.
The photographs were
both alluring and repellent to the stunned American viewer,
who knew more about the Civil War than the war in Iraq. Until
the brutal and horrible images from Fallujah were published,
even photos of body bags and aluminum caskets wrapped in American
flags were banned by the Bush administration.
The Americans are
at war, not with a country but with a person (not allowed constitutionally,
but since 9/11 everything goes) and the psychological impact
of visual images on the viewers, and their manipulation through
television and print, is dropped off right in their homes.
George Orwell wrote
in his classic 1984 that "Big Brother is watching
us." Not only is this true but with the introduction of
the video camera as a photo journalism tool, by 1984 Big Brother
no longer needed to watch us, for we were watching him. This
is most evident in the media coverage of events after 9/11.
Let us examine some of the images that have influenced both
the Middle East and the West.
If "one picture
is worth a thousand words," then the repetition of that
picture one thousand times would etch that image into the mind
and heart of any viewer. CNN's continuous showing of the hijacked
airplane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City
has ingrained that image and all its various implications into
the minds of the entire world. Visuals are powerful.
Along with the image
itself CNN invented public relations and advertising language
to persuade its audience that the United States was in a War
on Terrorism, that good was battling evil, and that this was
a new kind of war. The typography on the screen was wrapped
in colors of the American flag. There was nothing subliminal
about the images or the typography, which in itself is an image.
Here was a new tune to rally around the flag, boys.
Think of the language
typographically displayed on the screen.
More than a decade before, that language-"Desert Shield,"
"Desert Storm"-was an indication that war fought in
a desert, void of humanity as we know it, cannot harm our soldiers.
Immaculate images and censored reporting by "embedded"
journalists, along for the government ride, not unhindered reporting,
influenced the viewer in his living room and indicated that
all was going well. Censorship was imposed in the name of security
of position and images are just not there for us to see.
that you can make a small crowd look large by showing close-ups
and extreme close-ups. This was the method used to influence
the viewer by showing sixteen Palestinians dancing in the streets
after 9/11: it appeared to the unknowing viewer that all of
Palestine and perhaps the entire Middle East was dancing joyfully
to the tune of their pain-a psychologically shocking image.
Viewed close-up with
no perspective, it appeared to the viewer as if the entire city
of Kabul was bombed. In fact Kabul was already a shelled-out
city due to its war with Russia and civil strife.
Al Jazeera showed
the romantic Osama Bin Laden riding horseback, delivering calm
messages to an unseen audience, and holding weapons to "ward
off anyone who was against Islam."
The print image from
Life or Look magazine which influenced a mere
million or two million people, every week or two, has been replaced
by the "global image," one that influences the entire
In 1928 there were
two million radio sets in Great Britain. Today, America has
almost 100 million television sets in use for an average of
7 hours each day. These 100 million television sets display
channels that are dedicated to music, comedy, drama, shopping,
No other time in
history has allowed so many people to be reached, influenced,
and psychologically manipulated as the present. We have invited
the weapons of mass distraction into our homes.
News is inexpensive
programming. We are given the feeling that there is no time
left with programs aptly named 20/20, 60 minutes, and 48 hours.
Just as we do everything in life that is urgent and little that
is important, we are influenced to believe that what is selected
to be shown on our screens is indeed fact. Like the product
ad that reads "as seen on television."
So big was the 9/11
story that the networks temporarily set aside their pursuit
of profit and allowed us to see the singular devastation time
and again. What would TV have done with Dresden, where over
25,000 mostly innocent people were killed by bombs in one night?
Not everyone has
a television set in the Middle East, but many do, and those
who do not can watch at the local ahwa, or coffee shop,
which constantly displays sports events and news.
In Cairo public demonstrations
are allowed only with government permission. Thus they are contained
and at times the hard plastic helmeted, shield and stick wielding
police way outnumber the demonstrators. A crowd of just a few
hundred in Cairo can be made to look like thousands by CNN.
The western mind is thus fuelled to defend itself from these
mad, shouting supporters that the media has labeled "Islamic
terrorists." Of course any twelve year-old rock- throwing
Palestinian child is media labeled as a dangerous enemy worthy
of potentially lethal rubber coated bullets, while an Israeli
who enters a mosque and massacres (by shooting in the back)
some forty praying Muslims is an extremist, not a terrorist.
The continuous display
on television of "images of empathy," where not only
the image is important but who is watching is as important,
proves that a shared cultural experience can be viewed as oppression
by one viewer and dissention by another.
Stalin said, "The death of one person is a tragedy, and
the death of a million people is a statistic."
All opinions influence
and an image is an opinion. The same images that stirred Americans
might, when seen by others, unleash ideological preconceptions
with different points of view, whether they are in France, Saudi
Arabia, or Asia.
Conversely, in Iraq,
images provided by embedded TV journalists had the same narrowing
perspective. A sanitized war of high adventure and low casualties
that suggested little to that grim future that we now endure-a
troubled, violent, occupied Iraq.
Each war has engraved
a lasting image.
* Mathew Brady's
photograph of several dead Confederate soldiers in a field following
the battle at Antietam.
* Joe Rosenthal's
World War II photograph of the planting of the American Flag
at Iwo Jima. A set-up shot.
* Robert Capa's dying
* The naked, crying
napalmed Vietnamese girl.
* Eddie Adams' photograph
of the Vietnamese general shooting his enemy point blank in
* The Palestinian
boy Mohammed al Durra caught in crossfire with his father.
* And the falling
statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
These were tame images
next to the flesh peeling from walls and the strewn, mutilated
body parts of a suicide bomber seen in Thomas Friedman's documentary
on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Those that decide
what images are shown and how they are shown can sway the minds
of citizens of the world and have a responsibility to humanity.
is TBS's creative director.