Please, No Pictures!


Reporters Without Borders, a media advocacy group, has just released its second annual World Press Freedom Ranking, and the U.S., sad to say, didn’t do so well. In fact, we came in behind Trinidad, Benin, Slovakia and Uruguay, among many others (although well ahead of Cuba and North Korea) as a respecter of press freedom. True, things have been headed this way for some time; but with Iraq, the Bush administration has taken press restrictions to a whole new level.

The report singles out U.S. and Israel for special mention:

“The ranking distinguishes behaviour at home and abroad in the cases of the United States and Israel. They are ranked in 31st and 44th positions [out of 166] respectively as regards respect for freedom of expression on their own territory, but they fall to the 135th and 146th positions as regards behaviour beyond their borders.

The Israeli army’s repeated abuses against journalists in the occupied territories and the US army’s responsibility in the death of several reporters during the war in Iraq constitute unacceptable behaviour by two nations that never stop stressing their commitment to freedom of expression.”

Today’s consolidated media was ineffective enough already, but the Bush administration has gone out of its way to make unbiased reporting even harder. As part of the reorganization of the chain of command for Iraq in the White House, which according to Bush “is aimed at the coordination of interagency efforts,” a special communications office has been created to counter what it sees as the media’s tendency to dwell on the bad news, and discount the good, coming out of Iraq. In an attempt to bypass the national media’s “filter,” Bush recently granted exclusive interviews to local stations, on the (sure) bet that they’d be even less critical and confrontational than network reporters.

The administration wants Americans to think that media coverage, not current policy, is the problem. But the evidence, in measured in bombings, casualties, and body bags, points to the opposite conclusion. The Washington Post reported that the White House recently banned the media depiction of returning coffins:

“Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have worried that their military actions would lose support once the public glimpsed the remains of U.S. soldiers arriving at air bases in flag-draped caskets. To this problem, the Bush administration has found a simple solution: It has ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers’ homecomings on all military bases.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the military-wide policy actually dates from about November 2000 — the last days of the Clinton administration — but it apparently went unheeded and unenforced, as images of caskets returning from the Afghanistan war appeared on television broadcasts and in newspapers until early this year. Though Dover Air Force Base, which has the military’s largest mortuary, has had restrictions for 12 years, others ‘may not have been familiar with the policy,’ the spokeswoman said. This year, “we’ve really tried to enforce it.'”

Gulf War II pushed the limits of “embedded” reporting. On the plus side, journalists got to see the action up close. The downside was that the reporter inevitably began to identify with the troops, and the result was a blurring of the distinctions between reality and ‘official version’ of events. The tactic seemed to work well for the Pentagon, at least in the beginning, as a study of the TV war coverage by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog, shows. The study focused on the three weeks immediately after the war began and looked at 1,617 on-camera sources appearing in stories about Iraq on the evening newscasts of six television networks and news channels. The study, titled “Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent,” shows that an overwhelming majority of sources were … officials.

“Since the invasion of Iraq began in March, official voices have dominated U.S. network newscasts, while opponents of the war have been notably underrepresented.

Nearly two-thirds of all sources, 64 percent, were pro-war, while 71 percent of U.S. guests favored the war. Anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources, but just 6 percent of non-Iraqi sources and 3 percent of U.S. sources. Thus viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1. Official voices, including current and former government employees, whether civilian or military, dominated network newscasts, accounting for 63 percent of overall sources.

In the category of U.S. officials, military voices overwhelmed civilians by a two-to-one margin, providing 68 percent of U.S. official sources and nearly half (47 percent) of all U.S. sources. This predominance reflected the networks focus on information from journalists embedded with troops, or provided at military briefings, and the analysis of such by paid former military officials.”

When journalists try to dig up ‘unofficial’ information, they’re finding it increasingly hard to bypass the Pentagon, since the Bush administration has been classifying information like mad. The White House, it seems, is going out of its way to make it impossible for journalists to give the people an accurate picture of what’s going on in Iraq. Many reporters, like Newsweek‘s Martha Brant are acutely aware of the consequences.

“…it often feels like the American public has no sense of the steady trickle of killed and wounded. I’ve had some people tell me that it’s our fault; the media are not covering the deaths the way we did during the war. Others say it’s because the numbers are so small compared to, say, Vietnam, the news doesn’t catch people’s attention.

I’ll offer a different reason: there are no pictures. As much as I hate to admit this as a print reporter, images do sear into people’s mind more than words. Nick Ut’s photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc became synonymous with the Vietnam War. She was the terrified little girl running naked, covered in napalm. Television images of caskets and body bags also changed public opinion about the war.

But there are no images of flag-draped coffins in this war to remind people of the human price being paid. That’s because the media are prohibited from filming or photographing soldiers’ remains being sent home.”