A brave new online world of dueling icons

May 17, 2004

I was running the night city desk of the Miami Herald late one evening maybe 20 years ago when a news assistant dropped a photo from a traffic fatality on my desk. Some poor guy had stopped to help a disabled car when another car hit him. In the foreground of the picture was his shoe, which wasn’t empty.

Naturally, nobody considered putting that foot in the paper. Now, though, we’re about to tip into a new era, where the unparalleled abundance of communicating capacity will make a newspaper editor’s qualms an archaic irrelevancy. Atrocity is becoming part of the vocabulary of news.

The great Internet transformation is still in its infancy. That’s why we talk about the growing might of the online universe mainly in terms of the democratization of authorship, of all these new channels for words and ideas — the Internet as a vast extension of the printed word.

And that’s true. Even if the Internet carried nothing more than print, it would pack a revolutionary punch. It undermines two of the monopolies on which professional news media have long based their authority: exclusive access to sources and exclusive access to audiences, as Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, recently reminded the international Organization of News Ombudsmen in St. Petersburg.

The Internet gives civilians both. Witness the growing constellation of blogs — freelance information systems with news, feedback from communicants and links to authoritative sources.

But that’s still just the printed word. And as the recent flood of powerful images from the Middle East makes clear, words may assert, but it’s pictures that compel. And it’s here that the Internet is starting to have its greatest impact.

U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib had been alleged for months, but only when the pictures got loose did the world take notice. “It is the photographs that give one the vivid realization of what actually took place,” said defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “Words don’t do it. … You see the photographs, and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged.”

Columnist Jonah Goldberg argues that the hapless Nicholas Berg was savagely murdered on camera not in reprisal for the prison outrages, but in response to the pictures of them. The Abu Ghraib abuses must have been widely known in Baghdad, Goldberg reasons. But once the pictures made the humiliation truly public, vengeance became imperative.

That’s a persuasive argument, but to then blame the U.S. media for Berg’s murder entirely misses the point. It’s the total irrelevance of traditional media that the affair exemplifies. Berg’s butchers didn’t need CBS or the New Yorker to rub their noses in the jailhouse rot. They had the Web. And to bear witness to their response they again turned to the Web.

As disgusting as that episode is, the bigger story has another side. This technology can be an instrument of justice. A riveting documentary now on the Sundance Channel, titled “Seeing Is Believing,” examines the progressive potential of marrying state-of-the-art visual tools to the Internet.

The film focuses on a Filipino activist who trained a beleaguered coalition of villagers on Mindanao to use handheld video cameras to document the murderous response of the local gentry to their attempts to defend traditional land claims. They then used the Internet to pressure authorities in Manila.

Mini-cams enable even the most disenfranchised to document the conditions they endure. The Internet then lets them upload their stories and force the world to take notice.

And that’s a good thing. Just as it would have been good to have had pictures from that Baghdad prison when Saddam Hussein ran it. Or to have posted photos from Buchenwald in 1940.

The real problems come if we now plunge into a world of discourse that is even more superficial than news by sound bites, when conflict is waged with an eye — literally — to the images it will spawn, when politics becomes spectacle and spectacle becomes dueling icons. The danger iconic images — whether a toppling statue, an American led like a lamb to slaughter, or an Iraqi shackled and degraded — is that they may do no more than reaffirm belief and reassure believers.

Discourse withers, and without words pictures may say no more than a shoe in a roadway.

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