The War You See

The war seen on American TV is not the same as the war seen on Al Jazeera. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer looks at the debate about what pictures to show which audiences.


This reporter is deeply embedded in a Dell desktop computer and a bunch of TV screens in a newsroom in Washington.

I see pictures of the war, not the war. Just like you.

But I do see some pictures you probably won't see.

You won't see them because CBS News and the vast majority of American, North American, and European media organizations will decide not to publish or broadcast them.

This newsroom is not where the action is. But it is where decisions get made about what action will be broadcast or published on this Web site. And on that I can report directly.

"To air or not to air" became the question this past Sunday when Al Jazeera broadcast Iraqi video of American POWs being questioned, along with gruesome, horrible footage of the bodies of killed American soldiers.

CBS News aired some of the tape of the POW's, showing a "clean" segment of it to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during an interview on "Face the Nation," a clear act of journalism not sensationalism or bad taste.

Rumsfeld's spokeswoman then asked CBS to blur the faces and refrain from airing the soldiers saying their names until their families had been notified. And that's what CBS did, and most American media followed.

The full, graphic footage of the bodies has not been shown on American TV, as far as I know.

These are not easy decisions. They are not objective. Arab journalists have different perspectives than Americans or Europeans, or the U.S. government, or the Iraqi regime, or anti-war activists.

Even in the more homogenous culture of U.S. newsrooms, there is no science for deciding what pictures to show and what pictures not to show.

Both sides of the arguments were neatly summed up in a little on-air spat between on ABC News. Anchor Charles Gibson, talking about the grisly Al Jazeera tape, said, "Any time that you show bodies, it is simply disrespectful."

"I disagree with you a little bit," Ted Koppel replied. "We need to remind people in the most graphic way that war is a dreadful thing."

The tape of the POW's and the tape of bodies present different issues.

For CBS News and CBSNews.com, the primary issue with the POW tape was that the soldiers' families deserved to be informed before seeing the pictures on television.

The video itself was obviously newsworthy – it was evidence the there were American POW's and the Iraqis terrorized and humiliated them for propaganda purposes. After the families had been notified, non-sensationalist, non-exploitive use of the tape became appropriate.

The images of the bodies pose other issues. Is there a compelling reason to show them to our audiences? Is it disrespectful of the dead and their kin? Is it ghoulish sensationalism intended to boost ratings?

Or is it the vocational imperative of the journalist to show the unvarnished, uncensored facts (not always the truth, but the facts — they are not necessarily the same thing)? Is it irresponsible to sanitize the images of war? Who are we to choose what you see and what you don't see?

American editors spike pictures all the time because they are too violent, or too intrusive, or gratuitous somehow. In every city, every day there are pictures of crime violence too foul for air. Most Western media didn't air pictures of the murder of Daniel Pearl.

But Arab media did.

And Al Jazeera and many Arab media broadcast the tape of lined up soldiers' corpses in Iraq this week. Western reporters have filed stories about civilians in Cairo and Indonesia watching it on TV, some in delight, some in distress.

The world is watching different wars.

As an editor, my impulse is always to show the audience real facts, more so during a war. Doing otherwise is presumptuous censorship, usually. But often there are compelling reasons not to show pictures: privacy, sensitivity to families, gut decency. I haven't found many useful generalizations.

My advice for consumers is different.

Modern technology allows news consumers to sample these different views of war. Any pictures you've heard about can be found on the Internet, if you look hard enough.

My advice is use the Internet to read about the war in the English language Arab, European and Asian press (start with the links listed next to this story).

If you're a liberal or a radical, read the conservative magazines. If you're a conservative, read the leftie press.

The world is watching different wars. You should be too.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer
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