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.”