13. April 2005 · Comments Off on Pullet Surprise · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not

Yes, the title is from an old Art Linkletter collection of the unconsciously funny things that small children say, but considering some recent and startling developments in the art of news photography in the fair environs of Baghdad, it may be quite appropriate to visualize a large egg. Picture this egg, laid on the assignments desk at the AP or CBS news, and entertain the suspicion that it may be entirely rotten. Imagine the careful handling these eggs received, with no one asking too many questions about how on earth a local stringer managed to be on Haifa Street, just in time to take pictures of the public murder of two Iraqi election workers. Or under exactly what circumstances another local stringer managed to be near a bridge in Fallujah last year.

Imagine the god-awful stench of it, once the egg is cracked, and too many nosey consumers of news begin asking hard questions about the process, about the compromises made, and the sources of these riveting, and Pulitzer prize-winning photos. Do you wonder, as you are settling into your breakfast toast and coffee with the front pages of the morning paper, or settling into the arm chair in front of the CBS evening news, if men have been set up to be murdered, in order to make a splashy image for the delectation of the news-consuming audience… and if the various media enterprises covering the war in Iraq are complicit? (More analysis, speculation and theorizing here, and here).

After all, two fairly major news figures are on record, and from a decade ago, as saying that in the interests of “covering the news” they would accompany an enemy patrol, keep quiet and watch an ambush of American troops go down. A French video photographer accompanying insurgents in Iraq did indeed video an attempt to shoot down a cargo jet. A cameraman variously described as “from CBS”, and “carrying CBS documentation” was alleged to have been shot by American troops as he stood next to an insurgent attempting to incite a mob; the speed with which this particular cameraman is being distanced from direct employment by CBS News is particularly telling… as is the fact that his camera contained Johnny-on-the-spot footage of previous ambushes. Clearly, the major news media will go to any length for that riveting video or frame, and brush aside any quibbles about the morality of having done so.

I am not going to get into the prolonged discussion of who hired whom, of where they were standing, how they got the word, and what lens they were using— that’s being done elsewhere. I want to draw a couple of rough parallels, and consider if CBS, or AP would then have published the photographs.

Suppose, just suppose there had been a local stringer for an American newspaper or Life Magazine, hanging around a particular crossroad in eastern France in December, 1944. Just suppose, just suppose that in all the confusion at the Baugnez crossroads, this photographer was in the right place to take pictures of American soldiers being gunned down… that this imagined photojournalist took pictures of the surrendering Americans, a mob of them herded into a field, and gunned down by the SS. Would pictures of SS troopers walking amongst the sprawled bodies in that snowy field, kicking at them, and administering a pistol-shot coup-de-grace to those still living have been published immediately, and the photojournalist be given a Pulitzer prize? Or would that photographer be assisting in the investigation of the Malmedy massacre, and giving a very full explanation of his presence and apparent freedom of movement amongst the SS?

Another historic parallel: in 1964, at the height of the civil rights struggle in the state of Mississippi, three young men— two New Yorkers and a native of the state—who were working to register black voters, so they could participate in free and democratic elections, were arrested near Philadelphia Mississippi by local law enforcement on spurious charges. When they were released, they were turned over to the local KKK, murdered and buried under an earthen dam. Suppose, just suppose, a photographer from the local paper was tipped off by a Klan member, and just happened to take pictures of the murder of the three men… who were murdered because they were encouraging people to vote in a free and fair election. The three young men in Mississippi in 1964, and the two Iraqi election workers in Haifa Street last year were both executed for very much the same reason— to discourage potential voters— and by people who wished very much that a free and fair election not take place.

When is photo opportunity really news… and when is it just another part of a public demonstration of terror, aimed at intimidating the electorate? I have a little more confidence that these questions would have been asked in the newsrooms of 1944, and 1964, that news editors might have felt a little squeamish about embedding with the SS or the KKK. In these impartial days, the questions don’t even arise. In the final analysis, and at the most extreme, the mainstream media outlets have— with the best of intentions, and the most logical justifications for every tortuous step of the way— sleepwalked into allying themselves with evil.

Three cheers for moral equivalence and impartiality.

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