May 12, 2004
NEW YORK - It's a cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words.
But the case of the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal proves the power of that truism.
Just as the images of napalmed children and slaughtered innocent civilians in Vietnam played a role in transforming American public opinion, the release of photos from the Abu Ghraib prison may also become a watershed event in the national and international debate about the war in Iraq, terrorism, and the use American power.
The official administration efforts to paint a picture that most things were going well in Iraq, despite some setbacks, have been undercut by the images of beaten, bruised corpses and American soldiers who mugged for the camera while humiliating naked, hooded detainees.
The photos, which were snapped by soldiers equipped with digital cameras and burned onto CDs, are a testament to the digital revolution's ability to bring a new transparency to the brutality of war. And in this age of interconnectivity and 24-hour news channels from CNN to Al Jazeera, the images have had an immediate and profound impact both here and abroad in ways that simple words could not.
"This strikes right at the heart of America's image of itself," says Tom Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "The pictures are starkly in contrast with what Americans think of themselves: They are graphic and they're not ambiguous. And they're doing much more damage abroad than most Americans realize."
Since Jan. 16, the national and international media had been writing about the investigation of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Granted, many reports were footnote-like ("also in Iraq today ..."), and many were couched with official assurances that the military "was taking them seriously" and investigating "professionally." Still, some stories included allegations about the humiliation of naked prisoners and the existence of disturbing photos.
But it wasn't until the graphic images actually appeared on "60 Minutes II" and in "The New Yorker" that the magnitude of the abuses and their international ramifications started to become clear.
Suddenly, official assurances of military competence and professionalism appeared to be contradicted in living color. Other allegations about US misuse of detainees gained new credibility. And the repeated airings of the photos, along with warnings of more images to come, have given the abuse story a powerful resonance that didn't exist prior to their release.
"The fact that there are these visuals has enhanced the news value of this story," says Shanto Iyengar, a professor of political science and communication at Stanford University in California. "My guess is that the percentage of Americans who believe that things are not going well in Iraq and who believe that there's something wrong with the administration's handling of the war will go up in the short term." In a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 44 percent of those polled - a new low - said they believed the war was worthwhile, down from 50 percent a month ago.
Critics on the left contend the photos are proof that the media has been essentially quiescent during much off the war, accepting the Pentagon's version of the occupation until something stunning has forced reporters into a more skeptical stance.
Professor Iyengar argues that the photos resonate powerfully not only because they are at odds with Americans' perceptions of themselves, but also because the media haven't been aggressive enough in investigating the widespread allegations of abuse - allegations that were more regularly reported in Europe and the Middle East. And that's indicative of a pattern in the way the US press has operated from the beginning of the war, critics argue.
"There's a certain reverence for authority and for the official narrative of what's going on there. It's accepted until blatantly proven false," says Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher.
At the same time, critics on the right accuse the press of undermining the war effort, making more of these photos than of the burned and mutilated bodies of American contractors strung up in Fallujah. They contend that the attention is damning the whole military for the abuse of a few.
And some question whether the seemingly endless display of photos in this information-overloaded age could amount to a new version of sensationalism, in which the sheer volume of material produces a megaphone effect that in turn alters the usual sense of proportion.
But others defend the way the press has handled the affair, noting that it was written about regularly. And it wasn't until the actual military report about the abuses became public last month that the full extent of the problem became clear.
"It's pretty obvious that there were no real details of how egregious these things were until the executive summary dropped on several places [like The New Yorker and CBS]," says Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington. He and others note that many American journalists regularly risk their lives in an effort to ensure Americans get a fair picture of what's happening on the ground in Iraq, not just the official line from the daily briefing.
There is one other analysis that gives critics on both sides of the debate hope. It's that as horrible as the pictures are, they are also a reminder about the value of an independent press.
"The best role of a journalist is to expose the worst about ourselves as a country and as a people," says Al Tompkins, a journalism teacher at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It's a holding up of a mirror. And the only thing worse than the photos themselves would be if they never came to public light."
Truth-telling, however painful, Mr. Tompkins says, is "the best first step ... toward a cure for abusive behavior" and the primary role of all journalists.