The Thought Behind the Image

NATURE programs have long been a staple of learning and even family viewing for students of all ages. That's why we note with concern a trend toward ever-larger doses of graphic images of the violent "tooth and claw" side of nature in mainstream media.

Programs on, say, the lions of the Serengeti have long included a section on "the hunt." The hungry lion chases down the unfortunate gazelle - then we cut to a pride of lions roaring and feasting over a not-so-distinctly-depicted ex-gazelle.

Now, however, entire programs may focus on repeated images of "the kill." These are not simply artful or cathartic scenes designed to educate viewers to the unvarnished side of nature. Rather, they seem driven by the same sensational tyranny of "realism" that informs the tabloid press. Gore sells. The nature program most in demand is the one with the most bestiality - something the animal kingdom provides in a never-ending supply. A recent issue of a mainstream coffee-table magazine offers a 16-page phot o essay devoted entirely to a giant crocodile ambush of wildebeests in Africa. True, it is pictorially dramatic. But after the fifth photo of the same victim dragged into a mud pit, what is proved? Is this to become a regular feature?

The thought behind the image is what matters. Such nature footage may actually miseducate, since it reduces the expression of creatures to a single dimension. The subtler message, shorn of mediating values, is that humans themselves are merely part of a Darwinian natural order in which the only value is survival, kill or be killed. It's an old and seductive message: Man wants to be civilized but, despite our best efforts, we are finally just animals. The terrible images coming out of Sarajevo this year p rovoke many to demand that humans not act like animals. But what does an endless showcase of banal ferocity offer?

We don't want sugar-coating. But we need to make sure we and our children don't become what we watch.

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