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The Images of War

March 25, 2003

Vietnam was dubbed the "television war," but the images from Saigon and Hue were usually shot on film or tape that was flown out of the country to be edited and then broadcast hours or days later. Contrast that with the immediacy of today's war: real-time pictures of Baghdad in flames and Marines fighting Iraqis outside Basra.

The split-second availability of images has increased the burden on news executives to decide which pictures to show and when to show them. The first questions arose with the Iraqi capture of U.S. soldiers and the deaths of other military personnel. After some initial unsteadiness, cable and television networks seemed to be headed in the right direction Monday: Provide as much information as possible as quickly as feasible.

Iraqi government television filmed U.S. prisoners of war and slain soldiers and provided the videotape to Qatar-based Al Jazeera television. After CBS showed the POWs on "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Pentagon officials asked the network not to display the interrogation video again until the soldiers' families had been notified. That's a fair request. But once a reasonable time has passed so that the families can be told, viewers -- and readers -- have the right to see the images.

Responsible media still have the duty to consider taste and good sense: refraining from showing grisly images or reporting specific battle plans, for example. But captured soldiers are news, and no amount of tut-tutting from the government will make it less so.

In the wired world, censorship is difficult if not impossible to maintain, whether it is a government attempt to control information or media self-censorship. The mother of Army Spc. Joseph Hudson learned he had been captured as she sat in Alamogordo, N.M., watching a Filipino television channel, a powerful demonstration of the reach of cable and satellite television.

Many U.S. homes now have access to Al Jazeera, BBC and other international news outlets on their computers or televisions. That's a major change from the first Gulf War, 12 years ago.

The Geneva Convention orders that prisoners be spared "insults and public curiosity." The ambiguous phraseology was adopted in 1949, when only 2.3% of U.S. households, and even a lower percentage abroad, had TV sets; the main purpose was to bar the display of prisoners to gawkers.

Today television is ubiquitous, worldwide. It makes no sense to deprive U.S. viewers and readers of pertinent news available everywhere else. Showing pictures of POWs may be a propaganda tool for their captors, but newspaper readers and television viewers can distinguish between news and propaganda. If context needs to be given, then the media should give it.

Wars, even when televised, are not entertainment. They are brutal, ugly exercises in power, even when justified. Journalists regularly edit footage and words to eliminate gratuitously violent images that don't advance a story. That should not change. But it's not the job of the press to protect people in a democracy from tough, unpleasant news. That news provides the basis by which a free people can make informed decisions about their governments and their policies.

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