YouTube War/The Uncovered Body: What Makes Insurgent Videos "Propaganda"

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YouTube War by Cori E. Dauber
The Uncovered Body: What Makes Insurgent Videos "Propaganda"

The press coverage of the fighting in Iraq has included periodic stories about insurgent use of webbased propaganda.66 Distinct from news stories about terrorist use of the web as a general phenomenon in 31 other words, reporters have sometimes done stories about specific items posted to the Internet by terrorist or insurgent groups. These have generally been stories about what an individual video segment tells us about the terrorists. They tend to be stories about video segments so graphic the footage cannot be shown in their entirety on American television networks. But what makes these segments so graphic, what in fact defines graphic for American television, is that a body is shown. And almost inevitably these segments that are not shown, but which are discussed as news, are explicitly labeled as terrorist or insurgent propaganda. What none of these news pieces seems to mention, in fact what they quite coyly ignore (whether on television or in print), is that these video segments generally get explicitly labeled as propaganda only when a body is visible—making the footage unusable by television. When one of these segments was released which seemed to show the body of an American pilot, for example, the release of the segment was treated by NBC as in and of itself newsworthy. BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now to another story making news tonight, growing outrage this evening over a blurry video that appears to be the latest tool in the Iraq insurgents’ propaganda war against the United States. The video purports to show the burning body of an American pilot. More now from NBC News Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski. Jim, what is the thinking on this piece of videotape? JIM MIKLASZEWSKI reporting: Well, Brian, one military official in Iraq says he’s outraged by this video, while Pentagon officials admit the video does appear to be authentic. 32 The video, complete with music soundtrack, is poor quality but appears to show the burning wreckage of a US Apache helicopter. Unidentified Man: (From videotape) (Foreign language spoken) MIKLASZEWSKI: Shouting ‘Allah Akbar,’ ‘Allah is the greatest,’ enemy fighters are also shown dragging the body of at least one man across the ground. Military officials tell NBC News only partial remains of the two Apache pilots have been recovered from the crash site. The helicopter was shot down while on combat patrol Saturday just southwest of Baghdad. The video was posted on the Internet today by a militant Islamic group, the Mujahadeen Shura Council, with ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq and its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi has often released videos of his attacks against Americans as a propaganda tool to rally supporters and to raise money for his terrorist operations in Iraq.67 But there is something left out of that report about the way NBC—and, in fairness, all the other networks— generally treats all those other videos. There is a distinction between how segments are treated by the networks when bodies are visible and when they are not, which turns on the standards American networks have in place for treating images of the human body in extremis. This distinction was drawn particularly clearly when a Bulgarian commercial helicopter was shot down (with American contractors on board) in 2005. Two videos were released to the press by insurgents claiming responsibility. The first was particularly brutal. The single survivor of the crash was approached and told to run—which he is only able to do with assistance getting up—at which point, on film, they murder him (he’s shot). This video is treated as in and of itself newsworthy, but although some 33 networks air a few seconds of footage from the video (while others air still images or no images at all), no network airs the chilling ending. Some of the networks using footage from the video were quite creative in finding ways to avoid actually airing the graphic murder, while still being true to their point: the horror of the man’s death, and the perhaps greater horror that it was treated as grist for the propaganda mill, for example, blacking out the visuals while continuing the audio track so the single shot is clearly heard by the audience. For each network, the point of the news story is the same: that the existence of this footage tells us something about the nature of the enemy we are dealing with.68 The footage may be newsworthy, but it is not itself news footage, and in several cases, the choice not to air the final images is discussed explicitly. Interestingly, in one case, the decision is explained by comparing the networks’ standards to those of the Arab station al Jazeera. CBS’s Lee Cowan states this “particular video was so outrageous even the Arabic channel al Jazeera refused to show the shooting itself.”69 The second tape released was claimed to be of the shooting down of the helicopter. Interestingly, each network presents this as a case of “he said, he said.” Here we have two tapes, two claims, and no way to adjudicate the dispute, and so we present you with both. But in point of fact, by the time the network stories were aired, the security company that owned the helicopter had already identified the man killed in the first tape as one of their personnel, which would seem to clearly settle the matter. Thus while it is of interest that different groups are attempting to get credit for the same attack, each of these stories presenting the two claims as of equal weight—and using that as the basis justifying the decision to air the 34 second video—are simply wrong. There would seem to be no basis for the second group’s claim, and therefore no reason to air this second video, even if it is worth mentioning its existence. But what makes the second video of interest here is the difference in the way the networks treated it, compared to the first. Because it was visually of the destruction only of a machine, it was not treated as graphic at all, and was aired with little comment by the networks,70 despite the fact that if authentic, it would have been video of the deaths of quite a few more men than the first tape. (The helicopter, after all, carried 11 people total.) After the second video was released, CBS’s reporter made the distinction explicit: A group called Jaish al-Mujahideen says that they were the ones that shot down a commercial chopper yesterday, killing six Americans and five others. To prove it, their video shows the helicopter being shot out of the sky. As disturbing as this video is, it pales in comparison to what a different militant group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, claims to have done after the chopper crashed. A shaky camera stumbles on what appears to be the Bulgarian pilot, the lone survivor of the attack, lying in the grass.71 By the same token, when footage is used that shows the death of American troops but the audiences’ view of those troops is shielded by the vehicles they are riding in, the footage is apparently uncontroversial, judging from the lack of negative reaction to the practice; it has become the norm, and as such it is unquestioned. The footage is acceptable, in other words, because although the bodies are present, they are not visible. Yet when one network aired footage showing the death of American troops out in the open—even though they clearly identified the footage as enemy propaganda and even though the penultimate scenes, just before 35 the soldiers killed by enemy snipers slumped forward, were blacked out—it was the cause of considerable controversy.72 The first thing that made that story problematic was that, while the footage was, to be sure, repeatedly identified as propaganda, the story was not contextualized as a story about enemy propaganda practices, as had been the case with prior stories involving footage showing American deaths out in the open. Instead, the fact that this was propaganda material was acknowledged and then set aside and the story was then contextualized as a substantive story about enemy tactics: what did the footage tell us about the enemy practice of killing American soldiers by using sniper teams? In other words, this may have been propaganda, but it was treated as conveying legitimate, trustworthy information that was worth evaluating on the merits all the same. Certainly most news stories that label the segments as propaganda never mention that the websites where these segments are generally found are also a regular source for the news networks—that would mean admitting that material they are themselves explicitly labeling as enemy propaganda in one context is also being used by them in another context as a source for material on a regular basis, and very often without any particular identification that tells the viewer what the original source was.73 Thus it is general practice for footage to be identified explicitly as propaganda when men are killed outside their vehicles, but to never be identified that way when they are killed while inside their vehicles, as even when footage is sourced to the enemy, it is not explicitly labeled as propaganda. (The CNN story is only barely an exception, since despite the fact that the material is identified explicitly as 36 propaganda, that quickly becomes relatively incidental to the story.) Thus when the body or bodies are shielded from view by a vehicle and the footage is therefore not treated by the broadcast press as propaganda, it instead becomes available to be treated as news footage. It then can be seamlessly integrated into the regular coverage of the war, not to illustrate a point about the terrorists as in feature stories, but to illustrate the attacks on convoys, to illustrate the daily round of events, just as if it had been provided by AP or Reuters or indeed the networks’ own cameramen. It is the way CNN diverges from this practice that made their piece so controversial—their footage was of soldiers being killed out in the open, but their story was not about the footage’s power or the fact it was being used as propaganda but about its substantive value, its value as information, presumably the exact opposite of propaganda. It should be noted that CNN did not acquire these particular images by downloading them from the Internet, but rather the images were sent to CNN by the group in question, which is what made them exclusive. That only added to the controversy, however. Clearly, in showing the material, CNN was doing exactly what this group wanted them to do. You do not send material to CNN as a general practice because you want them to keep it private. While material is also posted to the Internet because a group wants to share it with a larger audience, the circumstances of the case seemed to highlight the choice made by all the networks on a regular basis, to give the enemy far greater access to an American audience than they could ever hope to acquire without the media’s assistance. Indeed, in this case CNN was up front about that fact and even claimed the group had larger ambitions for their message. The show’s anchor, Anderson Cooper, said 37 the “insurgents [were] delivering a deadly message, aiming for a global audience,”74 and seconds later, apparently with no sense of irony, welcomed “our viewers watching on CNN International.”75 Sometimes the segments are shown with visual and aural cues that they were taken from a terrorist or insurgent site, although rarely sufficient ones, given that no effort has ever been taken to explicitly address the fact that this is a normal journalistic practice. (It is certainly true that periodic stories refer to claims being made by these groups on their websites, so that the audience might be casually aware that reporters and networks regularly monitor such sites,76 but that is a far cry from discussing the practice of using these sites as a source of visual product.) Sometimes there are no cues at all, but the fact is that these segments are downloaded and used in this fashion by all six networks on a fairly regular basis.77 CNN, CBS, and most recently NBC on rare occasions have imposed a graphic—called a chyron—that states INSURGENT VIDEO on at least some of the material, a parallel to the practice all networks use when showing material received from the Department of Defense (DoD), when networks use a graphic saying something along the line of DOD FILE FOOTAGE. This seems to be not just a perfectly acceptable solution, but in fact a quite elegant one, so long as it is applied consistently— meaning whenever terrorist or insurgent websites are the source of the footage—and throughout the length of the footage, which does not so far seem to be the case for some reason for any of the three networks. In fact, doing this inconsistently might be worse than never doing it at all, since viewers might believe that any time the graphic is missing, the footage must by definition not come from insurgent sources.78 38 And although they do not do it in all cases, that graphic is visible, clearly imposed on the sniper videos that were so controversial when aired by CNN. Ironically, since the whole point of the discussion was that these videos had been received from an insurgent group, this is the one case where such a graphic might have been superfluous. If this can be done with footage from DoD, it is hard to understand why this cannot be done with footage from enemy sources. The argument that leaving whatever graphics the groups themselves might have superimposed on the footage in place is sufficient seems unpersuasive, given how few Americans read Arabic. For many of these videos, simply leaving the original Arabic graphics up as they were on the original video will not be enough of a cue since—probably by design—they may mimic the layout of those on a news site, for example using a news “crawl” on the bottom. With the groups’ logo either too small to see clearly or unknown to most Americans, the graphics alone might leave a viewer thinking the footage had been taken from an Arabic language news network. However, leaving the graphics up and then also leaving the audio track in place and simply lowering the volume so that the reporter’s voice can be heard is an alternative networks have sometimes used to great effect since the musical selections, often heavily based on chanting of “Allahu Akhbar,” leaves little doubt that the footage has been pulled from a propaganda video and not a news site.79 Another alternative available to the networks is one that can be drawn directly from the way they already cover political campaigns today. Every campaign cycle, political reporters do stories on campaign ads that are particularly interesting either because they 39 are especially negative, or because they deploy a new technique in campaign ads, or perhaps because they are simply proving especially effective. Such stories always include clips from the ads for obvious reasons. A number of election cycles ago, an elaborate study involving hundreds of subjects demonstrated fairly conclusively that the normal practice of all the networks at the time, where the clip was shown taking up the full television screen, confused viewers (perhaps because they tended to watch the news while engaged in other activities—getting dinner ready, putting kids to bed, helping older kids with homework, paying bills, etc.) As a result, almost universally when these clips aired, the context—a news story about the process of the campaign—was lost, and viewers simply assumed the ad was being aired again. The networks, in effect, were providing the campaigns with millions of dollars worth of free advertising, and legitimizing any negative or misleading claims they were in fact attempting to critique.80 The scholar who conducted those studies, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, called for the networks to adopt a “visual grammar” where clips from campaign ads would be shown imposed on a graphic of a television set, so that it would be immediately obvious that viewers were not simply viewing another run of the ad. (She suggested a wide variety of visual cues beyond that one, but this visual grammar was the most important suggestion she had to offer.) In 1996 her suggestion was picked up by a Pew Trusts panel, and soon after the networks adopted it as standard practice.81 It has, of course, since been updated so that some ads are shown using a graphic of a laptop to signify a web-based ad. The networks, in other words, already have these graphics and the procedures for using them in place and 40 use them on a regular basis (at least every 4 years) with no apparent difficulties. If this method is considered necessary to keep viewers from misunderstanding and believing the networks are presenting material actually produced by political campaigns, should it not be considered equally appropriate and necessary to keep viewers from believing the networks are the source of material produced by those responsible for the deaths of American soldiers and marines—not to mention innocent civilians—in order to produce the footage? Let there be no mistake, this footage is shot by terrorists and insurgents of attacks perhaps staged for the explicit purpose of providing material for filming. Imagine the outcry if it were suggested the networks rely on footage of campaign events shot by photographers on the staffs of the campaigns for their coverage. Indeed, we do not need to imagine it, for the press has never accepted the idea that even relatively innocuous photographs of fairly formulaic events could be provided by official White House photographers in place of their being granted access themselves. The President of the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA) had this to say about instances where official White House photographers’ images (called “releases,” “photo releases,” or “handout photos”) were the only ones made available (or, indeed, were simply the shots chosen by news agencies): If we truly want to improve coverage at the White House and maintain credibility as journalists, we must press the decision makers at our news organizations not to use handout photos and strongly encourage independent press coverage of the daily activities of the President.”82 41 In fact, she said, “I pointed out that with the significant numbers of White House ‘photo releases,’ White House photographers are crossing the line from documentary photographers to White House PR photographers.” The point is that as “long as independent photojournalists are excluded from coverage of the daily activities of the President, coverage of the White House is compromised.”83 The contradiction is fairly sharp. One set of photojournalists argues that unless independent press photographers cover every event, no matter how mundane or banal and no matter how few choices might seem available for representing the scene visually (the WHNPA President specifically mentions the photographs of the President looking out the window of Air Force One after Hurricane Katrina as a triumph for her organization’s members), then the coverage is completely compromised. The people staging an event cannot be the same ones providing the images of it. That is the clear standard articulated. Yet in the second case, which would seem so much more charged, so much more open to the photographer’s ability to alter what we see, news outlets are more than happy to accept footage provided by the very people staging the event being filmed, when the event—and the footage—seems likely to be far more subject to manipulation than what results from a standardized, even ritual, public meeting of the President with some foreign official—which is, at the end of the day, two middle-aged guys sitting side by side in easy chairs. It is worth noting that the kinds of photographs the members of the WHNPA are so concerned with always appear with captions, and those captions almost always include credits. News outlets, in other words, provide transparency for their audiences so that when the photographic images they use have been provided 42 by the White House and not their own staff, their readers have a way, with very little effort, of discovering that. If network news divisions feel they have no alternative to taking visual product from insurgent websites, just as they sometimes have no alternative to taking visual imagery from DoD (or the White House) because no other images are available, then they owe their viewers transparency: the audience needs a way to know where the images came from, and who produced them. Why would that be necessary if the images were produced by DoD but not necessary if they were produced by the nation’s enemies? Perhaps more important than the fact that the footage has been shot by these groups is that they are all edited by terrorists and insurgents, even if they are then edited again by network personnel. It is propaganda material, not news footage, or else the very idea of a difference between the two has no meaning whatsoever. As Ben Venzke articulates it, the “videos are a form of follow-on psychological attack on the victims and societies the group is targeting. They are designed to amplify the effects of attacks . . .”84 Hoffman writes about terrorist use of the web generally, rather than about these segments specifically, but gives an assessment that is clearly applicable here: It [the web] also enables terrorists to undertake what Denning has termed “perception management”: in other words, they can use it to portray themselves and their actions in precisely the light and context they wish—unencumbered by the filter, screening, and spin of established media. The internet also facilitates their engagement in what has been referred to as “information laundering,” taking an interesting or provocative video clip and/or sound bite, and featuring it and focusing on it and creating an “internet buzz” about it in the hope that it will move into the mainstream press.85 43 They no longer have to try to create “buzz” to move a clip into the mainstream press: they are now the press’s primary source of news footage when it comes to the vital issue of attacks on American military personnel in Iraq. All they have to do is make the material available. Consider again the sniper tapes aired by CNN. While they made for particularly powerful propaganda material because of the strength of the visceral emotional reaction they inevitably evoked, they presented a distorted view of the threat faced by American troops. The numbers tell the tale: as of mid-February 2007, sniper fire had accounted for 1.3 percent of all American deaths in Iraq, the least likely cause of hostile fire responsible for a combat death and less likely to kill American service members than nonhostile weapons discharge. Since the start of the war, 41 Americans had been killed by sniper fire compared to 1,134 killed by IEDs, the single greatest risk to American military personnel and responsible for 36.3 percent of all American military deaths in Iraq.86 Lara Logan, CBS’s senior correspondent in Baghdad at the time, argues that the practice of using terrorist and insurgent footage is a legitimate one for several reasons. First and foremost, she argues that since there is no other way this footage could have been acquired, people would simply assume the source although she is very clear that she is always very specific with viewers as to what the source is. She believes the audience would make this assumption in part because of the difference in quality—network professionals do not produce grainy black and white footage.87 Without empirical research, there is no way to answer the 44 question, but I am highly skeptical of this position. I suspect if nothing is said one way or the other, most viewers would likely assume footage is provided by news crews or simply not think about the question at all, since I do not believe most Americans are aware there is no other way the footage could have been acquired: the constraints on reporting this war are new to this war. (This is based in part on the anecdotal experience of a number of public presentations on the topic. In my experience, audiences, including military audiences, are inevitably surprised to learn network visual material is sourced in this way.) Networks now air footage of low, amateurish quality in any number of circumstances, most often when the footage is of breaking news events and has been provided by socalled “citizen-journalists”—in other words, people who just happened to be in the vicinity with a cell phone camera and had the wits to start filming when something newsworthy happened in front of them. If audiences think about this footage at all, most people probably assume it falls in that category and that it was shot by American soldiers, in other words by those targeted by the attack, not by those launching it. While the constraints on professional journalists have been discussed in detail in the various venues where the coverage of the war is itself the topic (trade publications focused on journalism, for example), there has been little or no mention of those constraints built into the actual reporting so that the mass audience may be only vaguely aware of them, if at all. If it is simply impossible to report without using this footage, it would seem that given how this practice seems to clash with journalistic norms and practices in other areas, the very least that is required is stringent requirements to assure transparency. Rather than making the assumption that their audiences must know what the 45 source of the footage is, the networks need to do everything possible to assure that there can be no question whatsoever as to the source of a particular piece of footage. Making it even less likely this footage will be detected by the average viewer is that in the majority of cases, this footage is integrated quite seamlessly into news pieces, and the editor is often drawing as little attention as possible to the differences between the footage acquired by network professionals and that acquired from terrorists or insurgents. If one watches John Yang’s February 7, 2007, piece, aired on NBC, on a series of American helicopters having been shot down in Iraq, there is (with the exception of one very brief shot lasting less than 5 seconds) absolutely no way to tell that terrorist video is being used: the jumps between terrorist footage, that apparently shot by network cameramen (it is possible some of it might be DoD footage, as well), and that shot during an earlier battle with the cell phone of an Iraqi soldier; are all seamless.88 If a viewer did not know what they should be looking for—or that they should be looking for it—it is hard to imagine they would notice it. ABC used the same terrorist-provided footage, but because Martha Raddatz’s piece began with that footage and used a continuous stretch of it at the beginning, rather than integrating it throughout the piece, it is somewhat easier to notice, particularly in contrast to that shot by ABC personnel and used throughout the rest of the piece.89 CBS’s Logan, on the other hand, did clearly identify the source of the video she acquired from the Islamic State of Iraq. She said: CBS News has learned that their transport helicopter was shot down during what the military called “routine operations.” But before the US could announce the 46 cause of the crash, a jihadi Website linked to al-Qaeda was already declaring victory. It said, quote, “The Air Defense Division of the Islamic State of Iraq has succeeded in shooting down and completely burning a Chinook helicopter.” There was no way to verify their claim, but the same group posted this video on the Internet last weekend, boasting they shot down a US attack helicopter close to Baghdad.90 [Author’s emphasis] That does, indeed, seem to be about as fair to the viewer as possible. These choices, however, reflect those made by particular reporters and producers on a particular night. Part of the problem is that there does not seem to be any consistent standards or policies concerning the use of this material. And part of the problem is that while some of these videos are poorly made with extremely low-tech equipment (hand held cameras, perhaps cell phone cameras), others are of extremely high quality made with high end equipment and are very difficult to distinguish from what professionals would have produced. Indeed, that may be because professional equipment was used to produce them. Some of the videos have been so professionally done that the individual responsible for processing all media artifacts captured on the Iraqi battlefield as of December 2007 is convinced that some of the insurgent videos were produced using al Jazeera facilities and was willing to go on the record with that claim.91 Some reporters believe there is simply no difference; that the point of view or perspective reflected in this footage, in other words, is no different from what would be reflected in the footage that would have been shot by a network cameraman had he or she been on the scene. The idea that footage shot by a professional photojournalist and footage shot by a jihadist propagandist would hypothetically be interchangeable 47 is a somewhat surprising one, but, even if it were true, it ignores, of course, the fact that any footage posted has also been edited by propagandists. We do not know what footage the professional would have returned with because we do not know how closely the propagandist’s work matches what actually happened—that is part of what makes it propaganda. The famous film Triumph of the Will, made by “Hitler’s film director” Leni Riefenstahl to document the 1936 Nazi party Congress, was so powerful that arrangements were made by the party to have it seen throughout the country. In fact, after the Germans took Austria, arrangements were made to have it seen by that population as well. Riefenstahl’s technique was so innovative that approaches she introduced are still in use by directors such as Steven Spielberg today: for example, having her subjects stationary while cameras moved on dollies. But the film is studied today as a powerful example of propaganda, not documentary film making, and it would hardly be cited as a definitive source for all that did or did not happen in Nuremburg during the relevant time period.92 Consider the powerful impact footage can have when it is edited in a particular way compared to how footage of the exact same event would have appeared if it had been edited differently, such as placing the shot in a broader context and thus sharply diluting its force—and therefore its usefulness to the group. As video, by its very nature, offers only a partial, selective view of reality, this allowed Hezbollah to focus on specific incidents within an operation, allotting them a significance way beyond their actual battlefield worth. The video camera allowed Hezbollah, which attached great value to symbolic gestures, to highlight such deeds, transforming them into the objective of the operation. Thus, when, in the autumn of 1994, a Hezbollah unit 48 infiltrated the Israeli Dla’at military compound in Lebanon and managed, at one point, to raise the organization’s flag, the unit’s cameraman focused almost exclusively on this event. Having captured this triumphant scene on video, Hezbollah then broadcast it countless times, turning it in effect into the whole point of the operation. That the Israelis ultimately drove Hezbollah guerrillas from the outpost counted for little against the symbolic achievement of raising a flag in an Israeli military post and was ignored.93 It is extremely doubtful that a network cameraman on the scene would have photographed the scene the same way or produced a comparable news piece after editing whatever footage had been shot on the overall operation. Ms. Logan is quite specific in terms of what would have to be done before any material from an insurgent website could be considered sufficiently confirmed to be judged usable in one of her reports, but Ms. Logan is also widely judged one of the best journalists to have reported from Iraq. As a result, her use of these websites may be serving to legitimize a practice based on what is visible on the surface, when the work that went into her feeling comfortable about using the footage remains behind the scenes and therefore invisible.94 I have heard concerns expressed that in at least some instances reporters are not even confirming that the footage they are using matches the attack they are reporting on, and I am aware of at least one case where I know that to be true.95 In another case, a video posted to the web ends with a spectacular explosion when, in fact, the Stryker vehicle that was hit was later towed away and repaired, and the entire crew survived with only minor injuries.96 I do not know that this footage was ever aired by a network, but I raise the example to make clear the dangers of relying on insurgent editors. 49 At a more basic level, an assumption that images do not reflect a particular point of view is simply unsupportable. Images are texts without words and are therefore more difficult to analyze because they are nonlinear.97 CNN’s own expert analyst for the sniper story, for example, made clear that the sniper videos were filmed in a particular way precisely to maximize their emotional impact: TUCHMAN (voice-over): The first thing the sergeant notices is that, in his opinion, the sniper’s gunshot is coming from a place and an angle that is different from the cameraman’s location. COUGHLIN: Just because of the angle where the shot comes from and from the camera view. TUCHMAN: Coughlin says, this shows the sniper team is trying to maximize publicity opportunities. COUGHLIN: It tells me that their shooter is farther away than the cameraman is. The cameraman gets up close, so he can actually get a good video of it, but you don’t need to be that close to be able to shoot like that.98 Images, whether moving or still, make arguments, and these videos, particularly when shown as a group as CNN showed them, are a perfect example of how arguments are expressed visually (keeping in mind that images are always contextualized by the words that accompany them, whether captions for still photographs or the reporter’s voice-over for news footage.) Taking the CNN sniper tapes as an example, they first and foremost make the argument that the insurgents use snipers because they are a precision weapon, and the insurgents are profoundly concerned that they not cause civilian casualties. This is made clear in the translation provided by the CNN reporter/ narrator, as he translates the soundtrack. 50 Michael Ware: “People are around them,” warns the sniper’s spotter, who seems to be operating the video camera. “Want me to find another place?” “No, no,” comes the reply. “Give me a moment.”99 Later, the same reporter notes: Here, the spotter warns the shooter he only sees Iraqis, until he’s sure he’s identified an American.”100 Notice that what is happening here is that the insurgents have used the tapes to make an argument about themselves, and CNN passes the argument on uncritically, without comment or critique. Yet, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. These groups all employ the tactic of using suicide bombers to generate spectacular media events, (certainly this particular group, the Islamic Army of Iraq, has, and has been cited as “nearly as violent as Zarqawi’s al- Qaeda in Iraq.”101 They are also, remember, the group that claimed responsibility for murdering in cold blood the sole survivor of that Bulgarian helicopter—and filming the act.) The surest way to make a bombing spectacular enough to attract media attention is to cause as many casualties as possible.102 After all, on a typical news day, a typical suicide bombing may or may not be singled out on the nightly news for something more than a quick mention. And there is never a guarantee that the visuals for any particular suicide bombing will make it onto the nightly news on any given evening.103 Notice that the prior practices of the group that provided the tapes, their percentages of sniper attacks versus bombings, are not treated as relevant to the story in any event: for CNN these 51 tapes are taken as evidence of representative practice across the insurgency. This group provides tapes only of sniper attacks, they are on tape talking about their desire to avoid civilian casualties, let’s discuss, not this individual group—which may or may not be that dominant in the galaxy of Iraqi groups, a question not addressed in detail—but practices across the insurgency as if these tapes were representative of their practice and as if their practice were representative of the entire insurgency, without any explicit discussion of either of those two assumptions.104 Obviously, not every act of terrorism is targeted to the American audience, and those groups who are concerned with other audiences will not care all that much about what degree of violence is required to gain the attention of the American press. But the simple fact that these videos were sent to CNN and not al Jazeera makes clear that this group did care about the American audience. The only way to ensure that a suicide bombing will be covered by the American press—which is to say the only way to ensure that it will be covered in detail, rather than merely mentioned— is to ratchet up the number of casualties, unless the target is particularly symbolic or uniquely shocking. It is the bombings that have produced spectacular numbers of deaths that have received serious amounts of attention. And the only way to cause large numbers of casualties is to attack “soft”—meaning civilian— targets. And that is exactly what has been done, over and over again. So why would it matter to this particular group to be seen by an American audience as taking particular care to avoid civilian casualties? It is far more than simply a statement about their not being responsible for civilian deaths. That alone might matter for an Arab audience, but these tapes, after all, were sent to 52 CNN, not al Jazeera. More than that, if they strive to avoid civilian casualties, that suggests that they are a military organization, or operating as one. After all, it is militaries that target one another’s personnel while trying to avoid civilian casualties. Creating such a perception of themselves would simultaneously identify this group as the equivalent of the U.S. military, and therefore legitimate—which is to say, not terrorist. This is the central message of the tapes, the ultimate reason for wanting them seen by an American audience: we are not terrorists, we are just another military force. This is particularly important in context, since, according to the story, the group is reaching out at this time in part because they want to engage the United States in negotiations. But the United States, which might negotiate with an insurgent or militia group, would not negotiate with terrorists. That still leaves them as a threat to American forces. To be sure, virtually every night the number of U.S. casualties has been mentioned on the nightly news, reported on cable every day, and in the papers every morning—on print and online. During those periods when the amount of Iraq coverage dipped, which happened on a regular basis long before the success of the “surge,”105 the one thing the networks always felt obligated to mention was U.S. casualties. That is often all that is reported—the number of troops killed, perhaps where they died, and sometimes the weapon that killed them. As a typical example, on April 17, 2005, Dan Harris on ABC reported that, “Insurgents in Iraq this weekend killed three US soldiers and also an American humanitarian worker. . . . The three soldiers were killed and seven others wounded when mortars hit a marine base near Ramadi. Witnesses say insurgents also tried to infiltrate that camp.”106 (A story on the aid worker, identified by name, followed immediately.)107 53 And no doubt that mattered to all these groups; it was helpful to them to the extent that it contributed to a weakening of American support for continuing the fight.108 The second argument made by the tapes sent to CNN, of course, is that the enemy can reach any American soldier, anywhere, anytime. It is an implicit argument expressed visually, but that does not make it any less powerful. Indeed, it makes it more powerful because it remains unexpressed, and therefore difficult to confront head on. CNN’s somewhat lukewarm qualifiers “[t]here is no way to know everything about the sniper threat from a single propaganda tape”109 can never trump the power of these visuals particularly as they are contradicted by the thrust of the overall story.110 Finally, they argue that this is the threat our soldiers face, since each of the videos is of snipers killing (or apparently killing) soldiers; no other type of attack is represented in the set.111 In fact, CNN’s reporters make the sniper threat appear to be as great as they can: Anderson Cooper: Michael, how often are—are these— these snipers firing? How often are—are U.S. troops getting killed by snipers? WARE: well, Anderson, they’re constantly out there. There is [sic] insurgent sniper teams operating across the country, you could say with some confidence, every single day of the week. The question as to how effective they are and whether there’s been an increase in these particular type of sniper attacks, most pointedly here in Baghdad, is a matter of great question at the moment. The U.S. military is not discussing it, citing the safety of their troops, saying: We don’t want to let the enemy know whether their tactics are working or not. 54 So, just how many American troops are being hurt by this is a closely guarded secret—Anderson. COOPER: When you see it through—through their video cameras, you see how vulnerable U.S. troops are. I mean, you have been out there embedded. You have been targeted by snipers. Are those tactics pretty common? WARE: Very much so. It’s been a feature of this war, Anderson, since the beginning. I mean, there was an insurgent sniper in the northern city of Tal Afar at the end of last year who was extremely patient, who would sit for hours and hours and hours, waiting for an American soldier in a tank to shift just that little bit to find the narrow gap that he could shoot between the soldier’s body armor, the plates in his body armor. At that time, there was a Navy SEAL sniper team hunting him. And they believe that he had received his training in Syria. So, this is throughout the country, Anderson. And American troops face it every single day.112 But every one of these arguments is, in fact, misleading, if not wholly inaccurate. At least publicly, CNN argues that the group sent the video with the sniper images to lend credibility to the second video they sent, the one where the group’s leader answered questions. We are assuming they included the sniper tape to prove the authenticity of the Al-Shimary interview tape and to establish their credibility. Of course, we also understood that some might conclude there is a public relations benefit for the insurgents if we aired the material, especially on CNN International.113 That is implausible. The visual images would be far more important to an insurgent group—which became the basis for CNN’s story? The tape of a single man, his face electronically obscured, answering questions 55 in Arabic would be intended to lend credibility to the sniper images, to validate them so they would appear credible enough to justify the on-air attention CNN proceeds to give them. But the confusion over which tape would likely be the more important to this group is of a piece with CNN’s general confusion over the role images and, indeed, the media itself, play within the logic of terrorism. There is no reason, however, to believe that CNN is any different in this from any other mainstream media outlet. Willfully or not, CNN does not understand the role the press plays in this war, and because they do not—or, perhaps, simply do not care—they continue to play that role quite effectively. On the air the night after the story aired, Anderson Cooper said, “even if there weren’t a single camera around to record it, insurgents would go on shooting Americans. They are the enemy, and that’s what they do.”114 What Cooper fails to understand is, unlike previous wars, that there aren’t cameras around belonging to Western press organizations doesn’t matter. There is no kind of forced choice for those who would want to kill Americans—kill them in front of Western cameras or kill them without the event being recorded for an American audience? Because, of course, there aren’t any press cameras around to record what is happening for the most part. If there were, CNN would be airing footage professionally shot by its own people, not badly focused black-and-white footage mailed in by the same people shooting the guns as well as shooting the pictures. The insurgents have simply adapted to the lack of Western cameras by providing their own cameras, since the American press has proven so willing to air their footage. The sniper videos themselves deny Cooper’s statement. The enemy will not stop killing American soldiers when Western 56 cameras aren’t around, to be sure, instead they’ll simply provide their own cameras, and provide the footage to the American networks for the American networks, because in the end, from their perspective, there is no difference whatsoever. Indeed, if anything, they end up better off, since the footage being aired has been shot (and edited) to reflect their point of view. It is better for their cause if the networks depend upon and use the footage provided than using footage shot by (and edited by) professional photojournalists. Cooper’s statement is, in the end, a nonsensical one, at least for a war being fought against enemies using the methodologies of terrorism. The footage being integrated into news pieces more typically has also been footage of American soldiers and marines being killed and maimed. The only reason this is found acceptable with less controversy than met the CNN piece, or perhaps is simply not noticed in the same way, is because it is generally presented as footage of a convoy being attacked, or a truck or “humvee” or armored personnel carrier being destroyed—the language reporters use almost always camouflages what is being shown, as if somehow these pieces of machinery shown being blown up were moving down the road under their own control. The use of this footage has become so normalized at this point that the audience does not have to think about what they are seeing, whereas when a network airs footage of the death of an American soldier out in the open and visible, there is no avoiding what is being shown, and the response is therefore enormously negative.115 But the networks are attempting to make a distinction in the use of this footage between what is being watched and what is being seen that cannot be sustained.116 The fact that American television coverage is “sanitized” in this fashion, that bodies (at least 57 American bodies) are not shown, has been noted before by a variety of critics and scholars.117 For this reluctance to show the human body in extremis to be trumped, a particular image must be judged to be extraordinarily newsworthy, and, even then, there is tremendous sensitivity in the way a particular image is displayed. This sensitivity is present in both broadcast and print news outlets. So, for example, the images of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu were judged so newsworthy that they were widely used by American newspapers, but almost never on the front page.118 One of Ms. Logan’s own pieces was shunted to the CBS website, but was not aired on the nightly news, apparently because it was not judged newsworthy enough to overcome the degree of graphic-ness in the story.119 The image of the bodies of four American contractors killed in Fallujah, their bodies mutilated and hung from a bridge, was used by all three broadcast networks and a wide variety of newspapers—but such a broad range of decisions was made about how to alter the image to make it “acceptable,” through cropping or pixellating,120 (which was not the case for the Mogadishu pictures) that very few Americans saw the image as it was originally taken. As a result, unlike previous iconic images, so many versions were seen that there is not a single immediately recognizable image that will stand the test of time. People remember the story, but it is doubtful they will recognize the image because people saw the image in so many different forms.121 Some have argued that this is some kind of ideological choice made to sanitize war itself and make it more acceptable. But, in fact, the American news system sanitizes every type of story that involves bodies. That included the coverage of September 11, 58 2001 (9/11), particularly compared to that seen in other countries,122 so that, for example, almost no images were shown of those jumping from the Towers—and when those few were shown, the shots were intentionally shown from an extreme distance, to make sure almost no details were visible—and essentially none at all of those burned or killed in the Pentagon.123 If these choices were ideological and cut in a pro-war direction as has been suggested, one would have expected the coverage of 9/11 to have been less sanitized, not more, in an effort to soften the American public’s attitudes, to make them more likely to accept war in response to the attack. Certainly, one would expect the footage of the second plane hitting the second Tower to continue to be seen—it is, after all, at that moment when it is clear that this is an attack, an act of moral agency. Yet that footage has essentially gone down the memory hole, as all six networks have policies making it all but impossible for reporters to use it for fear that it will “upset” viewers. At this point, it is rarely even seen during coverage of the 9/11 anniversaries. As a result, the iconic 9/11 imagery is now difficult to distinguish from that of any other generic disaster. Even when the footage is used, it is inevitably cut just before the plane actually impacts the building.124 The larger point is that this treatment of the body in news coverage extends far beyond war. Car crashes are a staple of local television news, but the images that accompany such stories in every media market in the country, on every network’s affiliates, are images of proxies of death rather than images of death itself. Thus one will see shoes in the road, teddy bears by the side of the road, crumpled cars, perhaps the shape of a covered body, but never an actual body, much less a body part. A Boston paper was judged by its readers to have used an image of a woman shot during a riot 59 on its front page which was too graphic. It received so much criticism from them that it had to offer an apology to them and to the woman’s family. The Boston Herald’s Editorial Director was quoted as saying it “was never our intent to disrespect Victoria Snelgrove or her family. . . . In retrospect, the images of this unusually ugly incident were too graphic. I apologize to the Snelgroves and the community at large.”125 By the same token, there are a range of iconic images associated with the crashes of civilian airliners. The pieces of the wreck itself, off in the distance, with rescue teams in hazmat suits moving among it, perhaps the shape of bodies in aligned body bags, above all the front piece of the plane, crumpled and lying on its side, are all iconic images associated with such crashes, but, again, bodies and body parts will simply not be shown on American television, nor will they appear in the print press, and certainly not in shots showing great detail, in close-up, nor shots where the body might be identifiable by family or friends. The images from the Lockerbie disaster when a civilian airliner was brought down by a bomb on board match up almost identically with the images from every other air disaster when planes were brought down by weather, mechanical failure, or pilot error. There is no recognizable difference. (In fact, when covering Lockerbie, photographers were very consciously making decisions to not photograph bodies except from a distance.126) The news sanitizes war in the United States, in other words, because the news sanitizes everything.127 What is ironic is that research suggests that presenting what is happening in Iraq as less gory than it actually is may well work in a fashion that is not pro-war, but rather in a way that may be pro-terrorist or at least which works to the terrorist’s advantage.128 And the way the duck blind footage is used suggests 60 how. Limiting themselves to what appear to be sterile explosions destroying vehicles and vehicles only, the networks shy away from any footage that might be available of suicide bombs, because unlike the IEDs, which are used against Americans in their vehicles, the suicide bomb, the other signature weapon of this war, is not typically used against military convoys but against “soft” targets—which is to say against groups of unprotected civilians out in the open. Showing footage of suicide bombers as they detonate would involve, not sterile images of metal hulks exploding, the bodies inside hidden from view, but raw images of body parts flying, and there would be little way to disguise that reality—by the time outlets were done cropping or pixellating, there would be nothing left of the image. And that would mean showing the American public the essential nature of the enemy being fought in this war. Thus while we see the IEDs as they explode, we only see the aftermath of the suicide attack, after things have been relatively cleaned up—the burning hulk of the vehicle, crying relatives, distraught or angry crowds, perhaps discretely covered bodies, both of the dead and of the wounded being rushed away. Perhaps that might seem bad enough, but often, on nights when the networks were covering the Iraq war in only the most abbreviated fashion—what reporters refer to as “the police blotter,” the run down of the day’s carnage— we did not necessarily see the crowds, the relatives, the bodies, and the wounded. We saw only the visual cliché of the burnt out or still burning vehicle. Would a change in network standards, so that night after night the American television audience had seen suicide bombers detonating in the midst of crowds of civilians, including large numbers of women and children, in market places, in front of hospitals, in all the other obviously nonmilitary locations the bombers 61 have sought, and continue to seek out, have made those audiences more insistent that American troops be pulled out more rapidly? Or would it have given them a compelling, perhaps irrefutable argument for why these enemies had to be defeated at all costs? Consider, by the same token, a story that may well have rallied public support strongly for the American military deployment in Iraq had more been made of it. The initial search for two missing American servicemen was closely followed by the press, indeed served to temporarily spike Iraq coverage quite obviously. Yet although the story of the search received a great deal of coverage, the second story, a short time later, which tragically brought closure to the first with the discovery of the soldier’s bodies received almost no attention. The condition of the bodies was such—because the men had been tortured before their deaths and their bodies mutilated afterwards—that no visuals were possible, whereas the first story, the search, offered multiple opportunities for visuals as troops spread out across the area looking for their lost comrades, and as cartoon simulations portrayed the soldier’s capture. And the press responded as if without visuals, there was no story. When the terrorist group responsible later released a propaganda video of their deaths, that too was barely even a 1-day story because, again, visuals were impossible. As Lee Cowan said on the CBS Morning News: The video, issued by the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq begins with an ode to Osama bin Laden, saying the killings of the US soldiers near Yusufiyah last month were, quote, “revenge for our sister who was dishonored by a soldier.” What comes next is as impossible to imagine as it is impossible to show.129 CBS appears to have not even covered the release 62 of the video on their nightly news show. NBC’s reporter said, “The Website contained videos showing two mutilated corpses. NBC News will not show it because of its gruesome nature.”130 They, too, only reported the video one time during their morning news show. There is no indication ABC covered the story at all. So the fact that these soldiers had not only been tortured and killed, but that their deaths had been turned into a propaganda tool, could easily have been missed entirely by the American public. It would be easy, given the amount of coverage, for someone who followed the news even fairly carefully to believe that they were missing still, and hence to be unaware of what the enemy had done to these two men. Is it possible the public reaction would have been a widespread revulsion, and a determination that the military should be pulled out immediately, rather than be exposed to such dangers? Yes, but it seems more likely that a rhetorical appeal based on the theme that “no one does this to our boys” would have been successful.131