Images of War

This is a post that I meant to do several weeks ago, when the Public Editor of the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, wrote a column titled “The Painful Images of War”. The column addressed the issue of whether news outlets like the Times should publish pictures of dead or wounded American soldiers, even over the objections of the military and the soldiers’ families. Hoyt quoted a Times photographer whose graphic images of a dead U.S. serviceman were controversial:

“Looking at photographs of the gravely wounded or dead is a profoundly affecting and emotional experience,” she said. “However, I do feel that it is my duty as a journalist to see that a truthful account of the consequences of war is given.”

Hoyt came down on the side of publishing such photos:

Painful as these issues are … I think The Times has an obligation to pursue stories and photographs that report the entire experience of war, including death.

The paper’s managing editor, Bill Keller, agreed:

Keller said, “Death and carnage are not the whole story of war — there is also heroism and frustration, success and setback, camaraderie and, on occasion, atrocity — but death and carnage are part of the story, and to launder them out of our account of the war would be a disservice.”

I meant to write about this at the time but ran out of time. I was reminded of the story today when Hoyt published a series of letters from readers responding to his column. Like the column itself, most of the letters were thoughtful and the opinions expressed were diverse. A minority offered an explicitly political rationale for publishing photos of dead soldiers:

Logic would strongly indicate that family members of slain American soldiers should not be irate at the photographers who shot those pictures or at The Times for publishing those photos.

Rather, one would think that their outrage should be directed at those in the United States government who placed their husbands and fathers and brothers and wives and daughters and sisters unnecessarily and unjustifiably at risk.

And again:

In general, anything the government does not want the American public to see, the public should probably see. Specifically, anything the Bush administration does not want the American public to see, the public should certainly see.

The discussion of the issue by Hoyt, those quoted in his column and the Times readers was generally balanced and fair, and the question seems to me to be one on which reasonable people can differ. Still, it isn’t hard to infer that at least part of the reason why some observers have urged that photos of dead and dying soldiers be published is that they think this will help mobilize public opinion against the Iraq war–a goal that, at this point, may be just about moot.

The Times photographer quoted by Hoyt says that graphic battle photos should be published “to see that a truthful account of the consequences of war is given.” I am somewhat sympathetic to this view. But isn’t that principle being very narrowly applied here? The fact is that newspapers and magazines hardly ever publish graphic images of violence in any context.

If journalists believe it their role to “see that a truthful account of the consequences” of a given policy or phenomenon is given, why don’t we ever see photographs of the bloody and battered bodies of crime victims? Most horrific crimes are committed by people who already had long records of violent crime, and either have not been jailed, have been given short sentences, or are out on parole. Many Americans think that our criminal justice system is too lax in punishing violent criminals. Wouldn’t showing graphic pictures of their victims, painful though that might be to their families, represent a “truthful account of the consequences” of our policies on criminal justice?

Here’s another one: a large number of crimes are committed by illegal aliens. Illegal aliens are also responsible for a remarkable number of motor vehicle accidents. Here in Minnesota, an illegal immigrant was just convicted of criminal vehicular homicide after she crashed into the side of a school bus, killing four children and injuring 17. No newspaper published photos of the dead or injured children. Why not? Wouldn’t such photos contribute to a “truthful account of the consequences” of our lax immigration policies?

One more: since shortly after September 11, 2001, the television networks have refused to show footage of the terrorist attacks or the collapse of the twin towers. They have done this on the ground that the footage would be too upsetting to Americans; therefore they are sparing our sensibilities. What they really mean, I think, is that if Americans could see that footage their anger against the Islamic terrorists would be rekindled and they may be more likely to support aggressive actions to defeat them. They might conclude, for example, that two or three minutes of waterboarding is a small price to pay to avoid such attacks in the future.

So, if we’re going to have a debate about when it is necessary to show graphic images of violence so that Americans can be better informed about the consequences of government policies, by all means let’s go at it. But let’s not pretend that the only time the issue arises is when a newspaper wants to publish photos of dead and dying soldiers for the purpose of turning public opinion against a military conflict.

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