The Gaddafi corpsewatch

October 21, 2011

The newsroom debate over which blood-smeared Muammar Gaddafi images to share with viewers and readers—which consumed wire services, newspapers, and news channels around the world today—seems a tad quaint in the age of the Internet. Thanks to ubiquitous cell phone cameras and hard to govern entities like Al Jazeera, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media that publish first and deliberate later, the old newsroom debates over what images to publish are moot, resembling the futile acts of paternalism a father might inflict on his 24-year-old son who moved out three years ago. It’s a wonderful spectacle, it makes news editors and producers feel important, but it no longer means much.

(Warning: Graphic discussion ahead. If thinking about graphic news images disturbs you and you don’t want to be tempted by hyperlinks that connect to some famous horrific images, please click out of this page now.)

The prejudice against publishing ghastly images and footage was late to arrive in American media, writes Barbie Zelizer in her 2010 book About to Die: How News Images Move the Public. In the early 20th century, images of the dead and the dying were not uncommon in American newspapers. For instance, see the graphic news photo, “The Genesee Hotel Suicide,” which captures a suicide in mid-plunge, and which ran in the Buffalo Courier Express in 1942. Changing ideas about decency, good taste, and propriety pushed such images out of the popular press, she writes, attributing part of the impulse to the censorship of battlefield footage during World War II.

In an interview, Zelizer connects our death-image squeamishness with a growing respect for individual privacy and an increased disdain for voyeurism. But the media’s squeamishness is a “movable standard” that expands or contracts as needed, she points out, to provide catharsis–as in the case of the endless re-runs of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers–or to embolden nationalism. By way of counter-example, when the horrors of the Cambodian holocaust needed publicizing, bone-stacks of the murdered were widely published without much hand-wringing in newsrooms.

The public never got much direct say in the deadly images deliberations. Journalists, acting like an information guild, reserved the discussion and power to themselves. They ostracized—or at the very least marginalized—publications such as the National Enquirer for publishing the dead Elvis picture because it violated their unwritten standards and challenged their control.

As Zelizer explains, digital tools have diminished the control professional journalists once held over deadly images. In 2009, Iranian videographers side-stepped the pros by posting on YouTube the final, bloody minutes of the life of Neda Agha Soltan, shot dead on the streets of Tehran during the protests. The conventional news media proved their redundancy by bowdlerizing her death scene, as Zelizer explains:

Some news media opted to show only select still images from the video, while others provided links to the site where it could be found, sidestepping its display in any form. Yet others heavily edited the sequence, blocking out the woman’s face, withholding her name, or running a pixelated version of the video.

The Gaddafi gore videos posted to the Web today (a manhandled, barely alive Gaddafi dragged off a pickup truck, an apparently dead Gaddafi being mobbed on the pavement, and a dead Gaddafi displayed with less ceremony than a hunting trophy) give network producers an easier egg to hatch. Whereas Soltan was young and innocent, making her death a tragedy, Gaddafi was old and evil, making his demise a cause for celebration. This afternoon, the CBS News website embraced that standard by posting video screen-grabs of Gaddafi’s crimson corpse and sharing the manhandled video.

In Zelizer’s calculus, the willingness of professional editors to publish disturbing material has been dictated by their geographical proximity to the scene of the carnage and the identity of the killed. The British media avoided publishing pictures of dead Diana, the American media did not. The WTC jumpers disappeared from U.S. media shortly after the 9/11 attacks but appeared “prominently and continuously” in non-U.S. media.

This hypocrisy—or inconsistency, if you prefer—proves Zelizer’s premise that standards expand or contract to serve the interests and sensitivities of individual publishers and networks. The home team must be protected (hence the scarcity of photos of dead American soldiers in U.S. media) but it’s always open season on the away team. By erasing the home-team, away-team distinction, the Web undermines the authority of old media to dictate which deadly images should be allowed.

The Web’s insistence on violating the taboos against deadly images isn’t without precedent. The foreign press, tabloids like the National Enquirer, samizdat media, and underground media have long ignored traditional American standards of squeamishness and treated their audience like adults. But the Web, unlike the tabs, enjoys a scale that makes it impervious to the scorn and censoring ways of the traditional gatekeepers. The journalistic old guard can complain all they want about the proliferation of deadly images and the alleged damage they do. But at this point, they’ve lost. Their protests merely determine which old-guard media operation will be “first to be second” in breaking visual news.


“Everyone wants to be first to be second” has been attributed to Jerry Nachman. Who said it first? Send nominations to My Twitter feed will never die. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: A man purported to be Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is seen in this still image taken from video footage October 20, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori


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Interesting perspectives – only, internet media and news journalism are different products that cater to different audiences. The former is like a visit to the reference library. The latter is like a curated visit to a museum. We individually choose the balance of the media we consume, and the curated channels we choose to follow. We don’t all “follow” this stuff on Twitter, and wouldn’t all be searching YouTube all day to see whether anyone had posted videos of Gaddafi’s death yet.

In my view there are only two justifications for publishing the images of Gaddafi:

1. People need to know he’s dead. It might save lives in Bani Waled if Gaddafi’s soldiers stop fighting for a leader who is no longer around. If guarded from news media, those people are only likely to be reached by viral text messaging.

2. Even though Gaddafi’s régime was brutal, he’s still a human being. Publishing the images shows the truth, that he was himself mistreated in his final hours. It shows the true face of war, and the true results of the kinds of threats Gaddafi made against his people. Witnessing the end is part of our need for reflection on the whole. (It certainly adds a newly vivid colour to all those news videos of NTC fighters from Misrata and Benghazi, promising to personally kill Gaddafi.)

The decision to publish was correct in this case, but meeting brutality with brutality (or even meting out to Gaddafi the kind of “justice” he promised to others) does not help create a new and reconciled Libya. It’s a great shame we didn’t see him squirming on the witness-stand in The Hague, struggling to justify himself – I think this would have served humanity much better. Surely the best revenge is to show the dictator that he is uniquely cruel?

This was a 21st Century public execution event, similar in every essential respect to the public executions of Europe (including England) in the 1500’s.

My opinions…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

I still wonder whether the killing of Gaddafi was the last act of the old Libya, or will be the first act of the new…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

how was killing gaddafi a savage act without trial, but not killing osama?

Posted by Shukla | Report as abusive

However unfortunate, death is as much a part of everyday life as is birth, the amazing beauty of birth is frequently captured on film and can be bloody and disturbing for anyone watching. In the latter a beautiful light shines, in the former a light is extinguished. The manner of death in the case of Gaddafi is little short of publicised murder. We as a species advocate fairness and justice and while this man did not by all accounts deserve either one cannot condone this, it only serves to sate those who have a lust for blood and helps to anaesthetise our view of what is becoming common place in the structure of our entertainment formats.

Posted by guitargenie | Report as abusive

@Shukla: Simplest possible answer to your question:

Osama bin Laden is reported to have responded to the presence of enemy special forces by making a movement as though reaching for a gun. As a warrior, he must have known what the results would be.

Gaddafi on the other hand, responded to the presence of enemy fighters by shouting, “Don’t shoot”. This is an indication he was surrendering. I doubt he shot himself three times, or that he made his own way into that drainage pipe after being shot already, or that he was able to make himself heard shouting “don’t shoot” above the din of bullets being fired into the pipe. He was almost certainly shot by NTC fighters after coming out from that drainage pipe. We don’t know the whole story yet, but in my opinion the NTC fighters probably decided to finish him off, or “lynch” him. At the very least, we may say for sure that the treatment of already-wounded Gaddafi in his final minutes (being manhandled instead of receiving the same kind of first-aid as the NTC fighters would have given to their own wounded) was against the Geneva Conventions.

In both cases (bin Laden and Gaddafi, if we are to compare them), it would have been preferable (in my opinion) to see them forced to justify themselves on the witness-stand rather than sending them immediately on their way, beyond the bounds of mortality. The opportunity was there with Gaddafi, but perhaps not with bin Laden.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

You can find pictures of Benito Mussolini hanging by a meathook upside down in a piazza in northern Italy after he was shot in the back of his head by Italian partisans. I don’t know if he was abused before he was shot, and I don’t know if newspapers published the photos at the time, but I think the photos were kept “sub rosa.”

As for the brutality toward Gaddafi, he had a chance to leave Libya under safe conduct but he chose to fight and eventually he got cornered by a rough group. Sometimes bad things happen to murderous dictators.

Posted by progpop | Report as abusive