The Boston Phoenix October 19 - 26, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

The image makers

The Middle East horror underscores an essential truth about the media: Pictures trump context

by Dan Kennedy

It's no surprise that a pair of images -- one of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy dying in his father's arms, the other of an Israeli soldier's corpse being thrown from a window by an angry mob -- have come to define the horror that has consumed the Middle East. Even the gaping cavity in the side of the USS Cole is no competition, visually, for the terrible human drama captured in those two pictures.

But it's not just news value -- or even shock value -- that explains the media's fascination with those two moments. Yes, the images say much about what is actually happening on the ground. What gives them such staying power, however, is what they say about the media themselves.

Clinton's ambition, Arafat's war
by Seth Gitell
Although the pictures tell vital truths, those truths are universal and obvious: that armed troops should not shoot so indiscriminately that 12-year-olds die, and that the fury of the mob is never so frightening as when it turns on apparently innocent outsiders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unable to illuminate questions of who's right, who's wrong, and where we go from here, the images are really less about the events they depict than about the forces behind the camera.

The visceral power of such images cannot be denied. Yet without context, without explanation, without understanding, they are empty, substituting the illusion of meaning for meaning itself. Answer this: are Israeli soldiers seeking out and deliberately shooting 12-year-olds? Or are Palestinian authorities exploiting children for propaganda purposes by putting them in harm's way? Clearly, one's understanding of the image depends entirely on one's interpretation of the events leading up to it.

As ABC News reporter John Donvan put it on Nightline last Friday: "The thing about pictures is that you know -- or at least you think you know -- that what you see is real. But the truth about pictures is that they don't necessarily tell the whole truth. And yet, in a place like the Middle East, a dramatic photo or a piece of video can take on a life of its own, and the results of that can range from the absurd to the ridiculous."

On one level, then, the Nightline program was a serious attempt to provide the context missing from those photos. On another, it was an acknowledgment -- and a self-congratulatory one at that -- of the media's role in transforming reality into myth, and of how that myth, in turn, ends up transforming reality. After all, the Palestinians rode a wave of favorable public opinion following publication of the photo of Mohammed al Dura slumping, dead, next to his injured father during an Israeli-Palestinian firefight.

It wasn't until October 12, when the video of an Israeli soldier being lynched was played over and over, and blood-splattered thugs bellowed "God is great!" for the benefit of television cameras, that the battle over images swung Israel's way. And there's no question that the media-savvy Palestinian leadership knew exactly how powerful those images would be: according to the Jerusalem Post, Palestinian authorities confiscated videotapes from many of the photographers who had witnessed the terror. Fortunately, Italy's Cinque 5 Channel was able to spirit its tape out of Ramallah.

If the preoccupation with image over context feeds into the media's need to transform the story into a drama about themselves, it also leads to another phenomenon much beloved by the news business: moral equivalence. Each image, after all, depicts something awful. In one, Israelis do something terrible to Palestinians; in the other, Palestinians do something terrible to Israelis. In the hopelessly complex battle between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Arabs -- a battle that goes back 50, 100, 1000 years -- the media take a deep breath and sigh in collective relief when they can portray both sides as equally violent, equally at fault, equally unreasonable, equally unfathomable. With much of American public opinion pretty firmly in the Israeli camp for reasons of culture, national interest, personal relationships, and family ties, moral equivalence also allows the media to proclaim their objectivity without delving too deeply into the issues.

To be sure, in such a charged environment, even moral equivalence can be controversial. In a piece written for National Review Online on the eve of the second presidential debate, Reagan-era defense strategist Frank Gaffney urged George W. Bush to reject this approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an approach that he called a hallmark of the Clinton-Gore administration (see "Clinton's Ambition, Arafat's War,"), and to adopt a more explicitly pro-Israel position. (Gaffney's advice was pretty rich, given that Al Gore has articulated a fairly strong pro-Israel stand, whereas Bush has urged better relations with the Arab states. Indeed, an important Arab-American organization endorsed Bush just this week. The current issue of the Economist includes an excellent piece on the growing clout of Arab-American voters.)

Perhaps because their job is to reduce the most complex issues to easily understood caricatures, editorial cartoonists have been at the forefront of moral equivalence. Witness the Los Angeles Times' Michael Ramirez, whose depiction of a Jew and a Muslim worshipping at a wall labeled "Hate" sparked a flurry of protests -- including a march by approximately 100 Jews against Vermont's Rutland Herald, which reprinted the offending cartoon. Interestingly, the language of moral equivalence was used both to defend and to condemn the cartoon. In a note published on the Times' Web site, Ramirez defended his work by saying, "It is unfortunate that the most recent events simply reinforce my view that extreme elements on both sides are the cause for this escalation." But the Times' "reader's representative," Narda Zacchino, noting that the paper had received about 1000 complaints, wrote, "To reduce the complex, enduring and seemingly intractable problems of Israel and Palestine to a simple matter of religious fanaticism mocks the history of the region."

Ramirez's cartoon was unusual only in its use of religious symbols and, thus, the protests it attracted. But he was hardly the only one to invoke moral equivalence as a convenient way to comment on the violence. This past Monday, the Boston Globe's Dan Wasserman depicted Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak sawing off the limb of a tree on which they were both sitting, thinking, "I'll show him!" And Pat Oliphant, in the current U.S. News & World Report, shows two babies, one representing Israel and the other the Palestinians, crying at a distracted Bill Clinton, "Hey! Our diapers need changing again!!"

The problem is that there is a fundamental intellectual laziness to moral equivalence. Although it's certainly reasonable to argue that Israel has used far too much force in suppressing what is essentially a rag-tag band of rock-throwing youths, it seems eminently clear, based on solid reporting, that Arafat touched off this wave of violence himself -- to pressure Barak into the negotiations formerly known as the peace process, to protect himself from radicals in his own camp, or both. You can't help but be moved by an October 4 New York Times op-ed piece by Avraham Burg, the pro-peace Speaker of the Knesset, who wrote of his despair over the Palestinians' rejection of peace on generous terms last July, followed by the violence touched off by Likud leader Ariel Sharon's provocative but perfectly legal visit to the Temple Mount on September 28.

"Now, at the home stretch of long, drawn-out and heated negotiations over a lasting peace agreement," Burg wrote, "we who advocated peace are facing an enormous crisis of confidence. The events of the past couple of days make us ask ourselves: Do we really understand what is going on? After everything was given, there are still demands on the other side."

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