The Gaddafi corpsewatch
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 Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. 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