As If: On Barbie Zelizer

As If: On Barbie Zelizer

Most journalists think that words are more important than images. Barbie Zelizer thinks they are wrong.


If, like me, you think that Big Money exerts ever more influence on the way politics gets covered in this country; and if, like me, you think that Citizens United, the recent Supreme Court decision that lifts the lid on corporate campaign spending, will speed up, reinforce and otherwise extend this unfortunate trend; and if, like me, you believe that for the past fifty years the main way corporate money has worked its electoral will is by manipulating news images via television commercials (watch Mad Men if you don’t believe me), then you will want to read Barbie Zelizer’s new book, About to Die.

Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Chair of Communication and the director of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. (Personal disclosure: I’m a longtime admirer of Zelizer from the days, many years ago, when we were Freedom Forum fellows together.) In the frontispiece of About to Die, she quotes the eighteenth-century German critic and dramatist Gotthold Lessing’s observation that an image can capture “but a single moment of an action,” and that therefore the image chosen must be “the most pregnant one, the one most suggestive of what has gone before and what is to follow.” Building on Lessing’s observation, Zelizer writes that in print journalism the “frozen moment of impending death forces attention even though people know more than what it shows.”

The frozen moment Zelizer analyzes in her book is the “about to die” moment, which she uses as a prism for making visible a range of political, psychological, aesthetic and moral issues having to do mainly with photographic news images and with the practice of print journalism. (She does take a few byroads into television journalism.) Images of “about to die” moments fall into three categories: images of “presumed” death, images of “possible” death and images of “certain” death. Zelizer discusses images of assassinations (Jack and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, but also more distant cases, such as Presidents Garfield and McKinley); executions (Daniel Pearl, Saddam Hussein, among others); wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, World War II, the Civil War and too many more); historical episodes (the Holocaust); metaphorical wars (the so-called “war on terror”); natural disasters; suicides and what have you.

She rightly emphasizes that most journalists and academics have generally assumed that words are more important than pictures or images; that the main function of news pictures is to document or illustrate words; and that most editors regard pictures as “softer” than words. Of the bureau chief who remarked, “Words can go deeper than pictures,” she writes, “This disregard for the image has buttressed a default understanding of news as primarily rational information relay that uses words as its main vehicle and implicitly frames images as contaminating, blurring, or at the very least offsetting journalism’s reliance on straight reason.” Of academics like Jürgen Habermas and Karl Popper, who have acknowledged the power of images, she argues that they seem “irritated” because they believe that “affect, the emotions, and passion,” which may be aroused by images, “undermine the development of the reasoned public that journalism is expected to bolster.” About to Die is a refutation of this “words matter and images don’t” perspective. As Zelizer sees it, words may be rightfully valued for reasons related to logic and evidence, but rationality, facts and information offer an incomplete picture, so to speak, of an event. Images can “bypass the intellect to engage the emotions,” offering instead what she calls “implicative relays, suggestive slices of action that people need to complete by interpreting and imagining.”

Zelizer argues that four interrelated interpretive communities are invested in the way we think and talk about news images: journalists, news executives (whom I would classify as journalists, though Zelizer doesn’t), politicians and officials (by which she means the subjects of news coverage), and viewers. Her critical categories for the analysis of news images of people who are about to die are what she calls “As is” and “As if” images. What class is to Marx, and what the id, the ego and the superego are to Freud, “As is” and “As if” are to Zelizer. Let me explain. “As is” is what it sounds like: what you see is what you get. Example: photos of four dead US contractors in Falluja whose bodies have been defiled by an Iraqi mob. With “As if,” on the other hand, what is seen is contingent, imaginative, subjunctive or what might be. Example: a photo of a young boy herded from the Warsaw ghetto by a Nazi wielding a machine gun. Will he be killed? Will he be wounded? Will he escape?

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Recalling “Aristotle’s injunction to dramatists to place death offstage,” Zelizer notes that one of the reasons “As if” photos seem to edge out “As is” photos in journalism is that, although there are exceptions, for the most part photographers don’t like to take pictures of dead people. Editors don’t like to run shots of dead people. Readers (not to mention relatives of the deceased) don’t like to look at dead people. And then there are the political reasons. Zelizer asserts that the “war on terror” “offers an illustrative set of examples about how the incomplete and suggestive nature of about-to-die images has been used to modify or hide the fact that people died.” She reminds us that from the very beginning, “the Bush administration called for media restraint, and most news executives fell in line. CNN chief Walter Isaacson was said to have instructed his international correspondents to avoid displaying an excess of gruesome images of the war, because ‘it seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.’” (Is this, then, a case where aesthetics trumps politics, or the reverse?)

Here’s another example, in a book packed with them, and one Bush had nothing to do with: the way about-to-die photos of people jumping or falling from the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11 were quickly replaced by photos of the towers themselves. This was significant, first because the response to the images signaled the diverse, contradictory and illogical responses of viewers, officials, journalists and news executives who in earlier times might have welcomed The Scoop. Also, the photos of the towers, Zelizer argues,

make it possible to engage with an event’s visualization without being repulsed by graphic imagery of the dying…. And they allow viewers to feel as if they are responsibly acting as witnesses to horror, even though they do not attend to its structural conditions, its causality, its purposive nature or its impact.

“As is” photos pose an altogether different set of issues. In March 2004 the New York Post ran a page-one story about the fourth fatal plunge by an NYU student since the beginning of the school year. Zelizer reports that the paper’s copy editor said of the photo splashed on the front page, “We had a damn good story…and a damn good photo to go with it. Of course we were going to use it!” But she also quotes our own Katha Pollitt, who called the photo’s publication “a new low” and wrote that “it is so grotesque, so cruel, so voyeuristic and so irresponsible to cover suicide in this way…. It is chilling to think of the photographer waiting for just the right moment to click the button so he could make his however many dollars the Post paid him.” But wait: would such a photo be “irresponsible” in all cases? What about the photo of the Buddhist monk who immolated himself to protest the Vietnam War? And if the occasion presents itself, should the ethical journalist interfere with another person’s suicide attempt or mind his own business?

Here’s one last example, this one pertaining to the depiction of genocide. On May 9, 1996, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front-page photo of a soldier looming over an unarmed man lying face up in a ditch, either about to die or already fatally shot. The headline was unambiguous: “A Liberian Prisoner Faces Death.” The Inquirer was immediately swamped with letters of complaint. The image was “too violent,” “disgusting,” “revolting,” “irresponsible.” Subscriptions were canceled. Only a handful of other papers ran the Reuters-distributed photo, and those that did published it in their inside pages under vague (where death is concerned) headlines like “Battle Rages in Liberian Capital” (Boston Globe). Oddly, once the news gathering stopped and award time came, the photo won almost every top award in the field.

Here’s Zelizer’s take on the controversy:

Given that the acts depicted here gave rise to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia only seven years later, which laid out the horrendous scope of the crimes committed, the implications of failing to engage around the unsettled and difficult events of intentional death brings pause. As the Washington Post wrote at the time, “This is news we can’t use, these foreigners killing each other for incomprehensible reasons.”

Unlike Susie Linfield, whose book, The Cruel Radiance, published last year, made the ethical and human rights case for showing photographs of atrocity or abject misery [see Frances Richard, “The Thin Artifact,” December 13, 2010], Zelizer does not take a position on the moral implications of “As if” images. When I read her explanation of how Sydney Schanberg, in a 2005 issue of News Photographer, argued that a lack of graphic images of the Iraq War was “undermining journalism’s obligation to full reportage,” and among the responses to his piece was a letter calling him an “idiot” who was “heartless toward the families of those who have loved ones” in Iraq, I was grateful that she defined the issue but disappointed that she didn’t tell us whether she or we should second Schanberg’s motion. This is too bad, since, having immersed herself in the world—the vocabulary—of images, Zelizer surely has some moral wisdom to share.

But Zelizer does do something else. She wants to inspire new thinking about “how news images might work differently, particularly in unsettled events where the public need for information is thought to be critical.” In that respect it is fitting that early in her book the Raymond Williams Chair invokes the man himself when she describes how “collective existence cannot take on meaning without some recognition of the structures of feeling that drive it.” This densely packed, closely reasoned book shows that Zelizer has absorbed and applied Williams’s insight: words, emotions and values frame the information we call news, and therefore the images that give rise to these intangibles deserve to be analyzed with the same precision and rigor as the words with which they exist in tandem.

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