War, the small screen, and the big picture

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FRIDA GHITIS, a former CNN producer/correspondent, is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

WHEN THE latest Middle East war erupted, I was in Istanbul. I watched images of the conflict from Turkey and, more recently, from the Netherlands, experiencing the anxiety and worry that has gripped anyone paying attention to this excruciating drama. The soul-searing images, radiating most recently from Qana, Lebanon, tell a story of fire, tears, rage and devastation. Like the lens that closes in on its subject, the images blur everything behind them, commanding attention, urging our minds to complete the picture.

The tears and the rage and the destruction are absolutely real. By confronting us with the ugliness of war, the images force us to keep human suffering in the forefront -- exactly where it should be. And yet television images of suffering pack so much power that they overwhelm every other kind of information. They can cripple our ability to understand what is really happening.

I went into the streets of Amsterdam to hear from residents who, unlike me, fully understood the narration that came with the pictures on their local news. Not surprisingly, the images dominated their thoughts to the exclusion of virtually everything else.


Bram Jipen talked about “those poor children, with the big eyes.” Everyone agreed that the war should stop immediately, and the majority -- with some viciously bigoted exceptions -- thought it was “everybody’s fault.” It seemed that TV destroyed the ability to differentiate, to analyze.

“They’re both stupid,” Gerard Jansan told me, righteously succumbing to the easy morality of blaming all sides. Viewing pictures of children with skin burned off their faces, it seems inhumane to even ponder the causes of war or, more inconceivable, whether a war might be justified.

In 1942, the British Royal Air Force, later joined by the U.S., began a massive campaign of carpet-bombing German cities to keep the Nazis from winning the war. Live images would have sent chills through TV audiences. Civilians died by the tens of thousands. If today’s technology had existed then, would the populations of Britain and the U.S. have demanded an end to the bombing? Would TV have helped Hitler win the war?

And what if we had seen pictures of the bombing of Berlin, Cologne and Dresden, but not of Auschwitz?

The power of the picture to dominate public debate creates enormous incentives to manipulate the media. It can hand victories to the side that positions and fires its weapons from civilian areas and then invites the media to witness the carnage caused by attacks on those weapons. And it punishes the side that invests in civil defense.

Television cameras are drawn to human drama. The same cameras can’t and don’t do a good job of conveying ideological alliances and political scenarios. Live television would have shown us the massacre at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It would have found it much more difficult to show the Nazi involvement in that massacre and in the catastrophe that befell the world after Germany and Italy used Spain for a practice run. When television shows a mother weeping for her baby, who can argue that an awful war can sometimes prevent an even worse one?


There was a time when scholars spoke of something called “the CNN effect.” That was back when CNN, my former employer, dominated live coverage of war. The effect was the power of emotional television images to force the hand of policymakers, building a wave of public opinion that forged soul-soothing policy. The effect no longer has a brand name, but it remains powerful.

Sadly, televised suffering does more than bring out the inner pacifist. It also inspires many to fight and to kill. And it spins a storm of rage, easily manipulated by clever politicians -- what Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reverently calls “holy hatred.”

To fully understand war, and to find solutions, television images alone are not enough. They bring home the wrenching truth of war’s human cost, a reality that needs no language. But, precisely because of their intensity, they can never tell the full story.