Seeing is Not Always Believing

statueThis statue symbolizes the grief and loss of the war in Iraq.

Actually, I lied. This picture has nothing to do with the war. I took it of a headstone in an old historic cemetery by my house. But how would you have known I was lying without seeing the statue yourself and without knowing the context of the picture?

This question could be posed to the millions of Americans who are now confident that Operation Iraqi Freedom is coming to an end after seeing TV images of jubilant Iraqis cheering as Saddam's statue was pulled down by American troops on April 9 -- a day that has now been given the name "Liberation Day" and "V-I Day" by the U.S. news media. Fox, MSNBC, and BBC new sources noted that this footage was reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain -- a symbolic analogy of the toppling of Saddam's reign in Iraq.

Saddam statue fallsAs quoted in the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the scene "breathtaking ... anyone seeing the faces of the liberated Iraqis, the free Iraqis, has to say that this is a very good day." It was also hailed on MSNBC as "The perfect stand-in for an elusive tyrant meeting his end. The scene instantly took its place in television's archive of unforgettable news imagery." The day after the event the TV news had a subtitle running across the screen that read "Postwar Iraq." In the wake of such powerful images are the facts and context of the event lost?


"I hate the sensationalism, news should not feel like Hollywood."

-- Skot Gillies, 23, is pro-war and he believes it is imperative to get rid of Saddam. He reads the BBC site because he feels it lacks the hype common in U.S. coverage. He also tunes into NPR and KFI AM 640.

"This war is a thinly veiled conquest for oil with zero regard for the implications."

-- Josh Simpson, 24, is against the war. His main news source is KPFA in Berkeley. Shows such as Democracy Now, Free Speech Radio News, and Flashpoints give him the factual background to support his Leftist views. He likes the fact that there is coverage on the Israel-Palestine conflict and how it ties in with the war in Iraq.

"Once the war broke out, the support for the war increased. It's what I call the CNN effect, viewers get sucked into the media, get excited over the real reality show and become supportive of the war."

-- Mattie Hagedorn, 27, is anti-war because he feels as a role model for other countries, the U.S. is advocating the use of force as a means of diplomacy. He often goes to the Guardian UK and BBC websites because they weigh both sides in thoughtful and provocative editorials. He also likes because it covers anti-war activism. He tries to get the Middle Eastern perspective through Al Jazeera.

"In Iraq, protesters of the war are tortured or killed. Without our armed forces and our government, we would not have the luxury of freedom of speech."

-- Chris Aboudara, 31, is pro-war and in full support of our troops. His main sources of information are NPR and KFSO 560 AM. He likes listening to the radio because the format is often a debate. Moreover the agenda of the station is often clear, and it can be taken with a grain of salt.

"The media is poking its viewers to get them to react, it is rooted in suspense."

-- Alicia Pozas, 28, is pro-war and is also in full support of the troops. She believes that we need to be there to protect our own interests as well as those of the Iraqi people. Her main source of information is the Internet. She often goes to Yahoo News, the SF Chronicle, or the Press Democrat. The web allows her to double-check her sources.
Alternate news sources such as question whether the media should wrap the war up in such a nice-fitting package. A wide-angle shot displayed by Indymedia of this event shows how few people were actually present during the fall of the statue and how surrounding tanks outnumbered these people. Was this whole scene just an event staged for the international media, who were stationed conveniently across the way at the Palestine Hotel? Al Jazeera, an Arab news channel based in Qatar, commented that "This is the scene the U.S. TV networks have been waiting for" and questioned what the U.S. media had been showing its viewers of the war. International TV viewers have received images of the carnage of war, the children and civilians caught in the crossfire. We, as Americans, have not. Most Americans think the war is about to end because of the scene of the statue falling. The image has been burned into their minds.

Live footage has become the glue holding viewers to the unraveling of events in Iraq. This image will stick in my mind much longer than the news story ever will, or the few words of caution from Rumsfeld, who added as a footnote that "the fighting will continue for some period."

This statue-toppling scene reminds me of another image that stuck in my mind after 9-11. It was a shot of Palestinians cheering in the streets at the demise of the Two Towers. A huge crowd was thronging the streets in merriment, waving flags, streamers, signs and cheering. On the top right corner of the feed were the words LIVE. Without thinking I was filled with a sense of dread. How could anyone celebrate such a horrific event, let along a whole crowd?

Yet something about the image did not jell …I had seen the clip on the morning news. Later that day, I thought about the image and the time difference. There is more than a nine-hour time difference between California and Palestine. A live feed would not have been in the afternoon sun, it would have been dusk or evening. Was it accurate to call the image LIVE when it was possibly pre-recorded, or even stock footage? The truth of images can be easily lost or manipulated when the context is not accurately conveyed.

It was once said that the only truth in media is the image. An image contains no viewpoints, no context, no overlying meaning. It is complete in its delivery. However, images in the media do not stand alone. When have you ever seen an image without any overlying commentary? The statue of Saddam falling was played in loop on April 9 on most of the major news syndicates.

On most of the mainstream TV news channels -- Fox, MSNNBC and ABC -- the news comes across more like a Hollywood movie with trumped up music, graphics, and images. The multi layer screens often displayed are better suited to a video game than news coverage. It is important to deal effectively with the barrage of information. There is absolutely no way to take in everything that is being broadcast. Moreover, in trying to do so, individuals get overwhelmed, apathetic, or angry.

If the image cannot be trusted to convey truth, and one viewpoint is not enough to formulate a valid opinion, it is best to look for sources that offer educated viewpoints and relevant debates rather than the avalanche of minute-to-minute updates amongst reactionary images. National Public Radio (NPR) and BBC are good places to start. To find out what news media outside of the U.S. are saying about the war, try the Guardian UK or even the Arab news network, Al Jazeera.

Mainstream media -- particulary the TV news media -- must rely on the image; a visual source needs images to fuel and push its message. It is better to learn something without relying on images. An image is often burned into your brain, producing a visceral reaction. Commentary without the crutch of an image might let you override the reactionary, enabling you to come to your own convictions.


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