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4/02/2004 03:23:00 PM | Timothy

TNR's Kushner, panning media's decision not to show the most grusome images from Fallujah:
Perhaps the single most disturbing image from this week's riot in Fallujah--in which four American contractors were shot, burned, and dismembered by a joyous mob--was of an Iraqi twenty-something beating a smoldering torso with a long, lead pipe. He rained blow after blow on the charred corpse, which lay on the ground where it had fallen from a car.... Few if any television stations showed the enraged pipe-wielder or another harrowing sequence, in which a red sedan dragged an American's remains through the street, with cheering Iraqis running alongside.

But the duty of reporters, producers, and editors, is not to soothe their consumers or protect them from cruelty. It is to convey facts--and the most important facts of this week happened to be hanging bits of blackened flesh and a man with a pipe. Often during wartime, the facts are disquieting; at times, they are revolting. None of this changes the U.S. public's need to know. Indeed, the Fallujah riots reveal something fundamentally amiss in American journalism--that an instinct to protect viewers is trumping an instinct to inform...

Who knows what the effect of these images will be on the American public? It is not the place of journalists to care. After Fallujah, some voters will hate the war, and others will hate the enemy. That is their prerogative, and no one else's. [link to entire article]
Update: It seems the article is behind TNR's subscription only area. That is too bad, because Kushner answers some possible objections, which you could evaluate for yourselves (email me if you want the entire article). But here are some of the particulars of his complaints about specific media outlets:
News executives claimed they were protecting readers and viewers. "The images are too graphic in nature to put on the air and have the American public--i.e., children or others--flip through and see," said a Fox News Channel vice president. "We didn't think it was appropriate to show bodies on page one. We chose to convey the nature of the event by means of headlines and a photo that is not so distressing," said the editor of the Dallas Morning News. For its part, the Orlando Sentinel acknowledged "the sensitivity of the subject matter and the sensibilities of our audience" in explaining its coverage of the riots. (Full disclosure: I'm a frequent contributor to the Sentinel's op-ed page.)

But the duty of reporters, producers, and editors, is not to soothe their consumers or protect them from cruelty. It is to convey facts--and the most important facts of this week happened to be hanging bits of blackened flesh and a man with a pipe. Often during wartime, the facts are disquieting; at times, they are revolting. None of this changes the U.S. public's need to know. Indeed, the Fallujah riots reveal something fundamentally amiss in American journalism--that an instinct to protect viewers is trumping an instinct to inform.

Explaining MSNBC's decision to choose images of the riots carefully, a network vice president told The Wall Street Journal, "We have standards and beliefs. ... We are gatekeepers." Actually, no. If readers and viewers are repelled by the images, it is not because the "gatekeepers" are being insufficiently cautious; it's because the subjects of the story are, well, repellant. And if viewers are disturbed by disturbing news, then editors have done their jobs. In the case of the Fallujah riots, there was no way to convey the extent of the subjects' moral depravity without showing their actions outright.

Dan Rather of CBS only pretended not to be a gatekeeper. He first told viewers (appropriately) that "some pictures in this report are not for children's eyes." The implication was that he at least trusted adults to see the images in full. But when they came on the air, they were blurred to distortion. What of the principle that, in a democracy, taste does not subordinate truth? If Americans are expected to take their opinions about Iraq into the voting booth, they must be equipped with the facts to make up their minds. The facts of Fallujah were unpleasant, but even in times of bad news, our political system is still dependent on informed decision makers.





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