Watch CBSN Live

There Are Two Sides To Some Of The Stories That Pictures Can Tell

Amateur historians like myself mark the beginning of the "television age" with the landmark 1960 presidential debate between the handsome, cool and charismatic John F. Kennedy and the sweaty, swarthy and five o'clock-shadowed Richard Nixon. Of course you've heard that Americans listening to the exchange on the radio narrowly picked Nixon as the victor whereas those watching it on the new-fangled picture-box favored Kennedy by a wide margin. Unfortunately for Nixon in that oh-so-close election year, an estimated 70 million viewers tuned in to watch instead of listen.

Today, as we endlessly debate and discuss the rise of the "Internet age," nobody can deny that what made television a media king nearly 50 years ago still reigns supreme today – pictures. Seeing is believing. And that point was driven home once again this morning as the world woke to the images of a boogeyman's corpse in Iraq. As powerful and important as such images can be, however, it's worth examining the circumstances under which the U.S. government and media use them.

(APTN/US Military)
When Iraqi and U.S. officials announced the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda terrorist who had become Iraq's most-wanted man, they produced a picture (framed even) of Zarqawi's lifeless body as evidence of the achievement. In the picture, the eyes were shut, the face pale but, except for a few scrapes, relatively clean. It certainly appeared Zarqawi had escaped meeting one of those 500-pound, laser-guided bombs head-on. But there were other pictures released as well, not all quite so camera-ready. There was also much made by the U.S. military of the video footage showing the targeted bombs taking out the safe-house where the terrorist sat.

Of course, we Americans haven't always reacted with such glee when it comes to such images. When dead American soldiers were dragged and paraded through the streets of Mogadishu, kicked and nearly torn apart, our military and leadership recoiled with horror. The 1993 episode, part of the "Black Hawk Down" misadventure in Somalia, drew rebukes like this from Senator Trent Lott: "Americans have no desire to see their men and women degraded, killed and defiled by lawless infidels who drag the bodies of Americans through the streets to be kicked and spat upon."

Interesting choice of words – "infidels" – considering current events. Similar outrage was given voice during the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein began parading U.S. POWs in front of the cameras, leading then-President George H.W. Bush to call it a "direct violation" of the Geneva Conventions and claim: "America is angry about this, and I think the rest of the world is." In this war, we're not even allowed to see pictures of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq. One wonders what the reaction would be if the dead body of an American general one day ended up on an endless Al Jazeera loop.

There are legitimate reasons for releasing the Zarqawi pictures and bombing footage but even those are not encouraging. Simply put, the people of that region, maybe most of the world, must see to believe. I'll leave it up to others to debate what that says about either America's credibility or warped cultures elsewhere (both a factor IMHO). It's an issue we've encountered before. Despite some criticism, the U.S. defended the release of images showing a dazed Saddam going through a lice-check after his capture. They were important, it was argued, for Iraqis to see that this dictator who ruled through fear had been reduced to a common criminal.

Of course, an even touchier case was already part of the record when Saddam was pulled out of his spider hole. When his sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a firefight some months earlier, graphic pictures of their bullet-ridden bodies were available to nearly every man, woman and child in the world. The reason then, as is likely the reason for releasing the Zarqawi pictures now, was believability. Even then, according to a review of the coverage by Washington Post critic Tom Shales, many Iraqis were unwilling to believe those were actually the bodies of the demented men they were seeing. Over time, presumably, they have come to accept it.

Call it propaganda, information or verification. But however you see the use of images their double-edged nature is impossible to deny. While eager to show the world its conquests, the U.S. has worked just as hard to try and limit the damage that can come from pictures. Abu Ghraib is the clearest example of that of course. Even after most of the damage had been done, it took a lawsuit to pry more images out of the military. CBS News Pentagon correspondent David Martin recently warned that it could be pictures that will make the Haditha episode into a stark reality for most of the world.

Even opponents of the war have to acknowledge that Zarqawi's exit from the stage is a good thing. If it takes pictures to convince the world that he has indeed been dispatched, then so be it. But it's worth remembering that images can cut both ways.