Don't Censor War's Horror

America's big media outlets should let Americans decide whether to look at pictures of dead U.S. soldiers -- and confront the reality of war

By Ciro Scotti

On Sunday morning, Mar. 23, television viewers in the Arab world and beyond saw grisly footage of dead American soldiers who may have been executed. Excerpts of that tape, apparently made by Iraqi TV and broadcast by the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera, were shown on Face the Nation, the CBS news program, as correspondent Bob Schieffer was interviewing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (see BW Online, 3/26/03, "Al Jazeera: In an Intense Spotlight").

Except for even briefer images and a few still frames, however, other major American news outlets declined to air the tape. On NBC that Sunday morning, talk-show hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer -- whose jobs usually include talking to people in funny hats outside their Rockefeller Center studio -- described the "extremely, extremely disturbing images" but never displayed any, lest they upset the nation.


  According to The New York Times, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo aired the video but claims it was a technical mistake that will not be repeated. ABC News President David Westin was quoted as saying: "I didn't see the showing of actual bodies as necessary or newsworthy." And Bill O'Reilly, resident angry man at Fox News -- the "we report, you decide" network -- said on Mar. 25: "We might not broadcast brutal images if they serve no purpose."

No purpose, Mr. O'Reilly and all you other U.S. TV journalists and network executives? Why don't you report what you're in the Gulf to report, and let America decide if there's no purpose?

Americans need to know and see what's happening to the young men and women who are being put in harm's way. War is cruel and frightening, but more than anything, it's gruesome. For many young people who have never lived through a war, the carnage of conflict is no more real than a violent video game that can be dispatched with the click of a mouse. And older Americans who have forgotten riveting images like the naked and napalmed little girl screaming down a road in Vietnam must reconfront the brutality of the course the nation has chosen.


  As Nightline anchor Ted Koppel says: "I feel we do have an obligation to remind people in the most graphic way that war is a dreadful thing.... To sanitize it too much is a dreadful mistake." Journalist/provacateur Matt Drudge, who posted images from the tapes on his Web site, wrote in an introduction to the photos: "The Drudge Report has wrestled with providing the complete video feed to its readers. The families of the murdered U.S. troops have been notified. And if anchormen and others in the media have viewed it, why can't the average citizen?"

Some might wonder: What about BusinessWeek Online? Yes, we're the Internet outlet for a major news organization, but we aren't covering the day-to-day combat of the war through visual images. As a matter of editorial policy, these pages don't feature pictures of dead soldiers any more than they feature people murdered or maimed in car accidents. It's just not relevant to what we do. But if we were doing a story that said such images are causing the Bush Administration to rethink its strategy in Iraq, for example, I'd say we should run the photos.

Beyond an almost sacred duty to understand the sacrifices that the country is asking of its troops, it's important that Americans not be spared the gore of battle or the horrific consequences that can befall the captured for this reason: Only by knowing the price that may be paid on our behalf, can we better assess any future call to arms.


  Although the U.S military has allowed the media unprecedented access to the Iraq invasion by "embedding" reporters and TV crews among the troops, the Pentagon isn't keen on having dead troopers shown on the nightly news. On one hand, images such as those of the possibly executed soldiers might serve to bolster the already damning case against the hideous rule of Saddam Hussein. On the other, a steady stream of graphic footage might help sway public opinion against the incursion into Iraq, much as it did during the Vietnam War.

Certainly the networks -- whose access and, therefore, ability to compete depend on the cooperation of the Pentagon -- understand this. For what other purpose can they be shielding American viewers from what the rest of the planet is seeing?

One further reason that we need to see those pictures that are worth a hundred sound bytes and a ream of written words is that we Americans must not be coddled if we're to comprehend the world in which we find ourselves -- and our image in it. If we wish, we must be allowed to witness incinerated civilians and soldiers cut down in our place.

White House spokeman Ari Fleischer sniffed recently that President George Bush prefers to get his information about the war from his advisers. That's probably smart, but maybe once in a while the President should bypass his filters and have a look for himself. The Al Jazeera tape might be one place to start.

For another view on media coverage of the war, see BW Online, 3/26/03, "Bombarded by War on TV"

Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, also writes A Not-So-Neutral Corner for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht