War isn't pretty, nor is news of it
Anguish, pain, and sorrow are powerful and unyielding images of war. That is why, I suspect, our military will try to dissuade the press from showing many of them as the invasion of Iraq continues.
The reason is obvious. Who can forget the picture of a girl, screaming, as she ran naked down a Vietnam road, her body doused in napalm? What image better defined divisions at home during Vietnam than the picture of a young woman kneeling in despair over the body of a Kent State protester slain by America's own National Guard? What contributed more to the United States' short-lived engagement in Somalia than a picture of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets there?
Images define wars. So if war looks like a Fourth of July fireworks display over Baghdad, Americans are a lot more likely to feel an energizing, if uneasy, excitement at the "shock and awe" of US military might than if war looks, for example, like a frightened American captive.
Perhaps that is part of the reason the US Central Command reacted with such fury Sunday when the Al Jazeera network aired footage, apparently shot by Iraqi state television, of captured and killed Americans. President Bush noted that such abuse of prisoners is a violation of the Geneva Conventions (he did not note that US television has shown the faces of Iraqi troops who've surrendered). In contrast, a Vietnam veteran protesting on the Mall in Washington, D.C., forcefully told the British Broadcasting Corporation that the starkest images of war should be shown again and again.
There is no question that significant ethical considerations must be weighed by the media before they decide whether the images used by Al Jazeera should be shown in this country and in what form. These soldiers have families who, when the story broke, likely didn't yet know they'd been captured or killed. Issues of privacy and dignity must be considered as part of any decision of whether to show the image of a dead human being, particularly one who is readily identifiable.
But although the privacy issues are strong, there's another ethical imperative here, one that argues that the TV networks, websites, and newspapers that chose not to show a single image of the Al Jazeera coverage might ultimately be doing a disservice to their audiences. War is hell, and unless we see that with some regularity when it's being fought, we may well make the mistake of pursuing it over and over again.
Furthermore, the responsibility of good journalists is to provide what was described more than a half-century ago in a report on the press as "a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning." In a visual world, that account includes pictures, even highly unsettling ones.
After CBS's "Face the Nation" initially aired some of the video, no other US network put any portion on the air until NBC showed a brief excerpt nearly 10 hours later, The New York Times reported Monday. It remains to be seen how much will be shown now that the families presumably have been notified. In the meantime, the Al Jazeera images, reportedly including the bodies of American soldiers in an Iraqi morgue and the faces of captured US soldiers during short interviews, have been broadcast around the globe.
Consider: If others in the world are seeing these pictures, shouldn't the American public see them too - and in a reasonably complete and timely manner? If Saddam Hussein is degrading his captives, shouldn't the American public see what kind of man its enemy is? There is plenty of precedent for showing manipulation of prisoners in captivity, dating at least as far back as the Soviet Union parading U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in front of the cameras in 1960.
Journalists "embedded" with US troops already have provided far more vivid footage than the sanitized, video-game imagery of the first Gulf War. But it's important for the public to recall that all footage from these journalists is subject to military review. Other images, provided by other outlets, and - yes - even the enemy, should be part of a more complete picture of the war.
Let's hope this won't be the war in which news media managers, freed from the physical constraints that left their reporters tethered to daily military briefings during the 1991 Gulf War, choose to censor themselves. The full array of war's images won't be pretty. But then, neither is war itself.
• Jerry Lanson is chair of the Department of Journalism at Emerson College in Boston.