Note: This is my final daily blog piece, after three years, at The Nation. I'll be writing a weekly column here starting next week.
Even ten years after the start of the Iraq war, the question is often asked: Why did it go on for so long? How is it that the American public, after months and then years passed, did not rise up against it in greater numbers? Surely one reason is that they rarely witnessed the true reality of the war on their TV (and computer) screens, unless they visited sites from abroad. From the very start, coverage by US news outlets was sanitized, with images of death filmed or photographed but never shown.
Years later, when images of badly injured or slain American soldiers did appear in our media—usually accidentally or briefly—protests rang out and news outlets often retreated or apologized. But in general, media simply refused to run images such as the one at left by the late Chris Hondros.
The sanitizing began during the first week of our invasion. Americans were already getting killed—along with high numbers of Iraqi civilians—but you'd hardly know it from the embedded, cheerleading, "we" are off to war coverage, by the US networks. Their "human interest" slant stopped at the gates of carnage. Al Jazeera was branded a terrorist network when it showed images of captured US soldiers. Here are a couple of still-active links from that time on the visuals, or lack of: Slate. Frank Rich.
And this "cover-up" went on for years (much more here), even as the death toll, for Americans and civilians surged. A piece I wrote for Editor & Publisher in June 2005:
A remarkable survey by the Los Angeles Times of six leading newspapers and two newsmagazines during a recent six-month period found almost no pictures from Iraq of Americans killed in action. And the publications ran only fourty-four photos of the wounded. "Many photographers and editors believe they are delivering Americans an incomplete portrait of the violence that has killed 1,797 U.S. service members and their West allies and wounded 12,516 Americans," the Times' James Rainey concluded.
Pim Van Hemmen, assistant managing editor for photography at The Star-Ledger in Newark, NJ, told Rainey, "We in the news business are not doing a very good job of showing our readers what has really happened over there."
The survey covered the period from Sept. 1, 2004, until Feb. 28, 2005. During that time, 559 Americans and Western allies died, but readers of the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did not see a single photo of a dead US serviceman. Nor did readers of Time and Newsweek.
The Seattle Times carried a photo three days before Christmas of a dead US soldier, killed in the mess hall bombing, but his body was covered.
The L.A. Times and New York Times each carried ten photos of the wounded, with the other six publications combined for a total of twenty-four. That means that for six months, in eight top publications, only fourty-four such pictures appeared—when thousands were injured. "I feel we still aren't seeing the kind of pictures we need to see to tell the American people about this war and the costs of the war," Steve Stroud, deputy director of photography at the Los Angeles Times told Rainey.
One notable exception: Last year, AP photographer John B. Moore—one of a team of AP photographers in Iraq who won a Pulitzer in the breaking news category this year—got exclusive access to a US military hospital in Baghdad and was able to photograph the dead and wounded. One striking image that he captured showed medics attempting to resuscitate a dying soldier. "We made an effort not to show the faces," the AP’s photo chief, Santiago Lyon, tells E&P, "but when we sent them out, in the US a lot of major papers chose not to run them. Those papers and other media subscribe to our feed. They're paying a flat rate, and can run as many or as few as they choose. In this case, they chose not to."
Lyon feels the reluctance of US newspapers to publish those images is not an issue on which AP should comment, even though gritty war images are shown much more widely in Europe. "We're providing photos and text to our subscribers, and it's up to them to use pictures as they see fit," he observes. "We've covered our mission. Of course, as a journalist, I think the truth needs to be told."
The publications have run many photos of Iraqi victims, with 55 pictures of the dead and wounded appearing in The New York Times in that same period, for example. But the L.A. Times survey also found that publications are much more likely to publish photos of "grieving"—scenes captured at funerals, memorials and hospitals. The Washington Post, for example, published no photos of dead Americans, only six of the wounded, but twenty-five of "grieving."
"There can be horrible images, but war is horrible and we need to understand that," Chris Hondros, a veteran war photog, told Rainey. "I think if we are going to start a war, we ought to be willing to show the consequences of that war."
For more miscoverage of the war, read Greg Mitchell on how the initial invasion was portrayed.