Tuesday, August 10, 2004

How Many Words is Half a Picture Worth?

Yahoo! News is a continually refreshing (in the computer sense) round-up of the big media news coverage of the world. Today, just now, its "Iraq slideshow" features 211 photos. These appear to be the cache of pictures sent out during the last three or so days on the worldwide newswires by AP, Reuters, and AFP.

So this is Iraq in pictures, as told to the world, by the "big three" of print media.

Seventy-six of the photos, by far the largest block of them, show "insurgents" in action. They run, they fire mortars, they pose with trophy American helmets (or else the same helmet passed around) and what are said to be captured American weapons (do our guys still use bazookas?). They flash the "V" for victory sign. They put AK-47s in the hands of their women and children and have them pose with a foot mounted on the brown U.S. helmet.

All three wire services ran more pictures of insurgents than of anything else from Iraq. The nature of the photos makes it clear that the photographers are embedded in the insurgency, up close and personal.

Now, if "embedding" was criticized when the U.S. military did it, because it implicitly aligned the reporters with the troops who protected them, and the authorities that granted them access to the front lines, is it OK now?

Ah, but what about the embeds on the side of our boys, eh?

Well, what about them? The number of pictures of U.S. soldiers and Marines in today's photo round up was 14. That's less than one-fifth the coverage devoted to the insurgents. And what were they doing? No smiles, no triumphant poses, no "V for victory" signs flashing. No posing with relics of their enemies. In most of the photos, the U.S. troops stood around, looking bewildered, at the site of some roadside bombing or mortar attack.

The photo wrap also includes some pictures of U.S. military equipment -- two of helicopters in flight, and four pictures of the same burning Humvee, from different angles (you have to read the captions to realize it's one vehicle, not four).

The pictures of U.S. vehicles, and many of those of the troops, are taken from a distance. As though the photographers were shooting from the other side.

Oh yes, I should have said there were 14 photos of living U.S. military men and women. There are five more pictures of dead ones -- including one photo of a montage that shows hundreds of faces of U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq.

There are twenty pictures of politicians -- more of politicians than of U.S. troops. Including two of Teresa Heinz-Kerry. What she has to do with Iraq escapes me.

The "Iraq slideshow" also has three pictures of beefed up security in European cities. This, too, stikes me as deceptive; it implies the Islamist threats against Europe are part of "Iraq." But the fact is the threats pre-existed the Iraq invasion.

Iraqi civilians? They are the subject of 13 photos out of 211 in the "Iraq slideshow." All of them show people wounded in insurgent attacks or caught in crossfire except one, which shows a small protest against the Baghdad government's decision to temporarily expell the Al Jazeera staff.

So Iraqis shown in the news today are all either insurgents (the vast majority) or victims of violence. There are five dead U.S. soldiers to 14 live ones, and no dead insurgents. The grinning Shi'ite militias are flashing "victory," while the hapless U.S. forces stand stunned and watch their hardware burn.

That's the impression I got from the pictures.

The actual body count? From the print version of the same sources that produced this photo show? More than 360 dead militiamen in Najaf alone. Four dead Marines. It's another rout for the coalition. The violence, serious as it is, is contained in three southern cities and a large neighborhood of Baghdad. Millions of Iraqis never got within sight or sound of it.

Sometimes a few numbers are worth more than a thousand pictures.