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Guest Commentary: Pictures Scarier Than the Pen

May 12, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It was not until 21 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor that censorship allowed Americans to see a picture of a dead GI. It was the now timeless photograph, by George Strock of Life magazine, of three uniformed bodies sprawled in the sand along the water line of Buna Beach, New Guinea.
The photo, already 9 months old, was released only because official Washington feared Americans were becoming complacent and wanted to prepare them for costly battles sure to come. At that, it took President Roosevelt’s personal intervention to get the censors to OK publication.
As in all wars, the written word was not similarly censored. Newspapers and magazines printed many reports of battles lost and Americans killed. These passed through both official censors and the voluntary self-censorship of editors and publishers conscious of their role in maintaining morale and contributing to victory.
No, it was images that by consensus needed controlling. In the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, there was no censorship, perhaps because they were not “declared” wars, but editors and publishers still felt the need for restraint, not only for reasons of public policy but also because of what is commonly called “taste,” something no one can define. Furthermore, there was the new kid on the block: television, beaming pictures that moved into homes.
By Iraq II, television, perhaps not the most informative medium, was the most pervasive. There was no censorship; reporters and cameramen embedded with fighting troops transmitted words and pictures directly to the American home without vetting them through the chain of command. The number of American deaths was tiny, fewer than traffic deaths on a Labor Day weekend. No American dead were shown. The unspoken reason was the fear of “aid and comfort to the enemy.”
With one exception. In this strange new Age of Communication, American TV, like television services everywhere else, had access to many sources, including the Arab channels Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. These got and offered videotape of soldiers captured when a truck convoy made an unfortunate wrong turn. Some were live prisoners of war, the rest, clearly seen, were dead.
Most American TV services rejected the pictures. Two used severely edited snippets. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair called such pictures a blow to morale and a heedless disservice to the families of the dead. Nor did newspaper use of the pictures cause a fuss; it was all about television. The military and its supporters care only about what the public sees on TV and how that changes its mood.
During the Vietnam War we saw wounded. We saw body bags. We saw some dead GIs and Marines. One of that war’s two iconic images is of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s chief of police, shooting a Viet Cong prisoner point blank in the head.
NBC News had film of the same incident. The film was sent to Tokyo, where the bureau had it developed, edited, narrated and fed to San Francisco by satellite.
The AP photo made the morning papers. The NBC film did not air until that evening. The AP photo won awards. NBC got complaints about showing bloody scenes at the dinner hour.
Apparently, television is different. It is more sought-after than other media; it is more feared. Television has become more than a medium; it is part of the family. That is its strength.
And weakness.
Reuven Frank was president of NBC News from 1968-73 and 1982-84.