Thursday, April 10, 2003

On the Limits of Images

The world and all its media are awash today in images of victory in Baghdad, and they all seem to center on that now-famous toppled statue of Saddam. It led all the newschannels, was repeated on continuous loop on the 24-hour cable stations, and a color photo was above the fold of today's N.Y. Times, once known as the "gray lady" before switching to color not so very long ago.
That single image, of course, was supplemented by all the related scenes of crowds jubilantly whooping it up, kissing each other and U.S. soldiers when they weren't hauling off as much looted booty as they could carry.
You had to look, watch or listen pretty hard to find a subtler reality that wasn't remotely consistent with what you thought you had learned from all those TV and even print images. The veteran war correspondent Anne Garrels, asked this morning on NPR about the mood in Baghdad, said that actually the city's mood was "subdued," and that most people were actually fearful, largely staying home in worried anticipation of what might happen next. And so it would seem that in a vast city of about five million people (roughly the size of Philadelphia), all those celebratory photos and TV footage didn't really suggest the larger reality.
Sorry, I hate to be a contrarian here, but I'll have to trust the veteran Anne G.--whom I've watched and listened to for perhaps 20 years, and who is forced because of the medium in which she works to go well beyond the compelling visual image--to tell me what's really going on there.
It's of course no big surprise to learn that you can't begin to trust TV to give you a meaningful window on the reality of the world. After all, do you ever see your daily reality reflected on local TV news? Is your life really an endless belt of fires, murders and other mayhem you see depicted on the news, especially during the ratings sweeps months of February and November?
The newer, sadder development, though, is this: even the New York Times now finds itself carried along by the images they know their audience was earlier bombarded with from the tube, and it plays itself out in driving their coverage the next morning.
TV isn't subtly corrosive to the truth anymore. Instead, it's radically, systematically dismantling much of the culture's ability to arrive at some rough semblance of a realistic picture of what's happening in the world.
Which is all the more reason to once again celebrate a guy named Michael Kelly, who died earlier this week in the cause of bringing his readers a real three-dimensional testimony to that war, the first journalist to die doing so. His eyewitness reports of the first Iraq war, the Gulf War of '91, were so astonishing in part because of the near-media blackout of that war, when the only images we saw weren't on the ground but rather video-game-like sequences of bombing targets blasted to bits. Instead, we learned most of what we knew through his print reports, which were almost TV-like in their ability to paint a visual narrative of stunning images.
Given all of that, I found it especially telling to come across his comments a few years ago on why he refused to do television. As a certified print journalism legend, he could have appeared endlessly on the tube, growing famous and then rich. But as a network TV booker early in his career, he also understood better than most the medium's insidious ability to corrupt much of what it touches. Here's what he had to say about it in the Washingtonian Magazine a few years ago:

A lot of friends in the business start investing more energy in it (TV) than in their writing, and there's only so much energy to go around. On top of that--I don't have opinions on or know about everything, and television requires you to pretend a level of expertise that you just don't have. The stuff that you actually know--really know--is limited to that which you've actually worked on. I mean, I can go on and happily talk about what it's like to edit copy--but that's not what they want. I know that if you do a lot of TV and make speeches, you can double your writing income giving the same speech over and over again to audiences that have a fairly low standard. This is not Mark Twain going on the Chautauqua circuit. But you're talking about making at least $200,000 a year. And inevitably, in your values, this starts to replace writing.

As an articulation of rare purity to his craft and his life's work, those words need no additional comment. But they surely help to explain why his legend, once confined to the world of writing and journalism, is now quickly spreading to a larger world.


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