Image Conscious

The fall of CNN, and what it means for the war


Since the beginning of the new Iraq war on Wednesday, the Qatari news network Al Jazeera has been showing images of corpses. The first few days, pickings were slim: A few bombing casualties from Wednesday night's selective strike, then a few more on the following evenings. The station really hit paydirt late Friday and throughout Saturday. Al Jazeera provided some of the most shocking war images ever broadcast on television: A field of bodies after the American strike on the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group in northern Iraq, a blood-soaked emergency room at the same location, and most horrendously of all, a luxuriously-paced tour of civilian casualties in Basra. Among those, one will linger in this viewer's mind forever (A few of the daily papers in Lebanon ran the same image on the following day's front page.) It was the corpse of a boy with the top of his head blown off. The kid's face, while stiff and covered with dust, retains its human features, but beginning at the forehead the skull simply deflates like an old balloon, ending in an unsupported scalp that (with apologies for the mixed similes) resembles the loose hide of skinned animal.

On Sunday, a new crop of images arrived, one of a dead U.S. Marine in a roadway, and, now more famously, a shot of four bodies of American servicemen. (Some sources in the United States claim their pants had been pulled down—though I saw some open flies, I can't state that there was any effort made to strip the bodies; among the least terrible characteristics of modern military ordnance is that it often leaves its targets unclothed.) The camerawork here had the same clinical/pornographic quality that it had had for the civilian images the day before, with enough probing of punctures and exit wounds to satisfy or enrage viewers on both sides of the conflict.

"Disgust and horror do not describe the viciousness of the images," is how Matt Drudge describes this last batch of pictures (which he shares with us after a pious display of wrestling with his conscience). "…[W]ith that same conscience is the total anger, and the feeling many of us have become too desensitized to the atrocities." ABC News president David Westin summarily announced, "I don't think there's any news value in it."

With mixed emotions (one of which is shame at allowing feelings of nationalism to trump those of humanity), I must admit I too was more bothered by pictures of dead American servicemen than by that of a dead Iraqi kid. These feelings are made even more pointed by the recognition that the Americans' bodies were relatively intact and unmolested. But I cannot share Drudge's—and I suspect, many other Americans'—feeling of outraged violation at these broadcasts. (Drudge, who never forgets who his real enemies are, blames the whole thing on Ted Turner.) A country that goes to war and then expects to see no evidence of war's actual results is not a serious country. And Al Jazeera is remarkably consistent in its presentation of horrific, chaotic and disturbing imagery, regardless of its origin or its potential for swaying audience opinion. (This is not to say that Al Jazeera's topic selection does not reveal a deep bias; it does, and the bias is well known.)

What was most troubling about the images of American bodies in enemy hands was that they gave a strong impression of a war effort so badly derailed that our forces can't even collect their own casualties (nor, seemingly, as of this morning, keep control of an Apache helicopter in seemingly good or reparable condition.) This has been Jazeera's real triumph so far in the campaign. Unlike any of the American, British or European news networks available overseas, Jazeera (and to a lesser extent some of its Arabic knockoffs) is presenting a coherent and convincing picture—and that picture is of an American war effort going disastrously wrong.

I am not making any claims for this picture's accuracy. My understanding of military affairs is extremely limited, and if you told me Saddam Hussein is hiding a cache of photon torpedoes I would have no way to prove you wrong. For all I know (and hope) the war may end with a stunning American victory this evening, or may already have ended as I'm writing this. But Jazeera's story has a surface believability that is worth paying attention to—particularly as such stories have the potential to become self-fulfilling.

The elements of Jazeera's total and terrible victory over its competitors are pretty basic: It treats news as an immediate and vital resource. Jazeera's reporters take great personal risks for exciting footage and stories. The station has rapidly attained core professionalism—full coverage of press conferences, comments from all sides, and so on. It is welcome in areas where the western networks are not, and it is absolutely not squeamish about presenting any claim or image.

This extends even to material that American audiences would find quite interesting. I can't think of a single instance over the past few days where the coverage from Jazeera's people traveling with American forces was not more exciting and compelling than anything on CNN, the BBC or MSNBC (I have no access to Fox News in my current location, but given that network's bloviation-rich, content-poor coverage of the war in Afghanistan, I'm not expecting great things). Yesterday morning, during the firefight in Umm Qasr, CNN broadcast a stationary camera shot of the long standoff, while pompous anchorman Aaron Brown warned viewers that they might accidentally see some unpleasantness—the unstructured environment of a live broadcast being presumably too dangerous for the network's childlike viewers. Jazeera by comparison had a cameraman who was physically closer to the Marines on the front of the battle, and got closer footage of the operation. There have been similar performances in the fighting at Nasiriyah, and in showing the details of logistics for American forces in the field. Alone among the news networks, Jazeera gives you the impression there is a war going on, rather than a series of press conferences.

If this were limited merely to which network had cooler war footage, the problem wouldn't be so striking. But even in imparting information, CNN has been seriously outclassed. At around the same time that the Umm Qasr firefight was winding down, CNN's bottom-screen crawl mentioned that there had been a grenade or rifle attack on a 101st Airborne Division tent in Kuwait, with an American soldier suspected. This of course was the attack that killed Capt. Christopher Seifert and wounded 15 others. While CNN was still in the early stages of the announcement, Al-Arabia, a Dubai-based Jazeera clone, was already running interviews with some witnesses in the 101st (along with the now-familiar night footage of Sgt. Asan Akbar being taken into custody). Back at CNN, anchorman Brown set his rhetorical fist to his brow and coyly worried over whether he should dare to reveal some information about the suspect to his viewers. Akbar, we now understand, is a Muslim, and I don't think there is any case to be made that this information is not relevant to the matter at hand. Why should anybody be listening to a news network that sees its first role as being that of a wartime censor? In short, if you are not watching Al Jazeera (and if you have a satellite dish you've got no excuse), you are not getting anything close to full coverage of this war.

The problem for the Bush administration is that CNN cannot continue to play dumb for long, and this morning's coverage of the alleged downed Apache helicopter indicates that the mood is already changing. Comical as the image was of an old farmer holding what looked like an Ottoman-era rifle and claiming to have downed the aircraft, what was striking was that this footage appeared almost simultaneously on CNN and Jazeera.

While that is good news from the standpoint of compelling television, it heightens the sense that the administration is now in a race against time. Success in this venture has been posited on the absolute assumption of American invulnerability. To the extent that the Jazeera version of events presents a plausible case that America could lose the war, every extra day that the war takes to complete will make even victory look more and more like defeat. (In fact, given that current resistance appears to be coming as much from small bands of guerillas as from Iraq's regular army, and considering the near certainty that jihadists are now eagerly making their way into Iraq, it's no longer clear that the peace will look substantially different from what we're seeing right now.) The more CNN's coverage starts to look like Jazeera's, and the messier the war starts to look, the more it will embolden both opponents of the war and those who actually oppose America. Whether it will also reveal how thin domestic support for the war is remains to be seen: Americans may become more determined to fight as more dead soldiers pile up.

This weekend's events notwithstanding, the war may be about to end in a rapid American victory. (Though continued lukewarm references to how "the plan is moving forward" and "operations are proceeding" do not inspire confidence.) The issue here is not how the actual war is going, but how the battle of images is going. On that front, there hasn't even been a stalemate. So far, it's been a stunning victory for the Arabs.