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Friday, March 28, 2003 02:20 pm

Image conscious

How can a country go to war and expect to see no evidence of the war's results?

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Since the beginning of the new Iraq war, the Qatari news network Al Jazeera has been showing corpses. For a few days, pickings were slim: Several bombing casualties from the first night's selective strike, then a few more on the following evenings. The station hit paydirt late last Friday and throughout Saturday. Al Jazeera provided some of the most shocking war images ever broadcast on television: A field of bodies after the American strike on the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group in northern Iraq, a blood-soaked emergency room at the same location, and, most horrendously of all, a luxuriously-paced tour of civilian casualties in Basra. A few of the daily papers in Lebanon ran the same image on the following day's front page: the corpse of a boy with the top of his head blown off. The child's face, while stiff and covered with dust, retains its human features, but beginning at the forehead the skull simply deflated like an old balloon, an unsupported scalp, all loose skin.

On Sunday, a new crop of images arrived, one of a dead U.S. Marine in a roadway, and, now more famously, a shot of four bodies of American servicemen. (Some sources in the United States claim their pants had been pulled down--though I saw some open flies, I can't say there was any effort made to strip the bodies; among the least terrible characteristics of modern military ordnance is that it often leaves its targets unclothed.) The camerawork here had the same clinical, pornographic quality of the civilian images from the day before, with enough probing of punctures and exit wounds to satisfy or enrage viewers on both sides of the conflict.

"Disgust and horror do not describe the viciousness of the images" is how Matt Drudge described the last batch of pictures (which he then shared on his Web site, www.drudgereport.com, after a pious display of wrestling with his conscience). ABC News president David Westin summarily announced, "I don't think there's any news value in it."

With mixed emotions--one of which is shame at allowing feelings of nationalism to trump those of humanity--I must admit I too was more bothered by pictures of dead American servicemen than by the photo of a dead Iraqi kid. These feelings are made even more pointed by the recognition that the Americans' bodies were relatively intact and unmolested. But I cannot share Drudge's feelings--and, I suspect, those of many other Americans--of outraged violation at these broadcasts. A country that goes to war and then expects to see no evidence of war's actual results is not a serious country. And Al Jazeera is remarkably consistent in its presentation of horrific, chaotic, and disturbing imagery, regardless of its origin or its potential for swaying audience opinion. (This is not to say that Al Jazeera's topic selection does not reveal a deep bias; it does, and the bias is well known.)

What was most troubling about the images of American bodies in enemy hands was that they gave a strong impression of a war effort so badly derailed that our forces can't even collect their own casualties. This has been Al Jazeera's real triumph. Unlike any of the American, British, or European news networks available overseas, Al Jazeera--and to a lesser extent some of its Arabic knockoffs (yes, there are now other Arab news networks)--is presenting a coherent and convincing picture, and that picture is of an American war effort going disastrously wrong.

I am not making any claims for this picture's accuracy. I have little understanding of and absolutely no interest in military affairs, and if you told me Saddam Hussein is hiding a cache of photon torpedoes I would have no way to prove you wrong. For all I know (and hope) the war may end with a stunning American victory this evening, or may already have as I'm writing this. But Al Jazeera's story has a surface believability that is worth paying attention to--particularly as such stories have the potential to become self-fulfilling.

The elements of Al Jazeera's total and terrible victory over its competitors are pretty basic: It treats news as an immediate and vital resource. Its reporters take great personal risks for exciting footage and stories. The station has rapidly attained core professionalism--full coverage of press conferences, comments from all sides. It is welcome in areas where the western networks are not, and it is absolutely not squeamish about presenting any claim or image.

This extends even to material that American audiences would find quite interesting. I can't think of a single instance over the past week where the coverage from Al Jazeera's people traveling with American forces was not more exciting and compelling than anything on CNN, the BBC, or MSNBC (I have no access to Fox News, but given that network's bloviation-rich, content-poor coverage of the war in Afghanistan I'm not expecting great things). During the firefight in Umm Qasr, CNN broadcast a stationary camera shot of the long standoff, while anchorman Aaron Brown warned viewers that they might accidentally see some unpleasantness--the unstructured environment of a live broadcast being presumably too dangerous for the network's childlike viewers. Al Jazeera by comparison had a cameraman who was physically closer to the Marines on the front of the battle--and got closer footage of the operation. There have been similar performances in the fighting at Nasiriyah, and in showing the details of logistics for American forces in the field. Alone among the news networks, Al Jazeera gives you the impression there is a war going on, rather than a series of press conferences.

If this were limited merely to which network had cooler war footage, the problem wouldn't be so striking. But even in imparting information, CNN has been seriously outclassed. At around the same time that the Umm Qasr firefight was winding down, CNN's bottom-screen crawl mentioned that there had been a grenade or rifle attack on a 101st Airborne Division tent in Kuwait, with an American soldier suspected. This of course was the attack that killed Captain Christopher Seifert and wounded 15 others. While CNN was still in the early stages of the announcement, Al-Arabia, a Dubai-based news network, was already running interviews with some witnesses in the 101st (along with the now-familiar night footage of Sergeant Asan Akbar being taken into custody). Back at CNN, anchorman Brown set his rhetorical fist to his brow and coyly worried over whether he should dare to reveal some information about the suspect to his viewers. Akbar, we now understand, is a Muslim, and I don't think there is any case to be made that this information is not relevant to the matter at hand. Why should anybody be listening to a news network that sees its first role as being that of a wartime censor?

The problem for the Bush administration is that CNN cannot continue to play dumb for long, and its coverage of the alleged downed Apache helicopter indicates that the mood is already changing. Comical as the image was of an old farmer holding what looked like an Ottoman-era rifle and claiming to have downed the aircraft, what was striking was that this footage appeared almost simultaneously on CNN and Al Jazeera.

While that is good news from the standpoint of compelling television, it heightens the sense that the administration is now in a race against time. Success in this venture has been posited on the absolute assumption of American invulnerability. To the extent that Al Jazeera's version of events presents a plausible case that America could lose the war, every extra day that the war takes to complete will make even victory look more like defeat. The more CNN's coverage starts to look like Al Jazeera's, and the messier the war starts to look, the more it will embolden both opponents of the war and those who actually oppose America. Whether it will also reveal how thin domestic support for the war is remains to be seen: Americans may become more determined to fight as more dead soldiers pile up. But they will no longer claim to be fighting for democracy. u

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Tim Cavanaugh is the former editor of Suck.com. Doug Kamholz's regular media column returns next week.

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