Saturday, October 15, 2005

Lying Eyes

“I trust my eyes.” Our brains are designed to trust our eyes before trusting other sources for information. That’s why television, magazines, and most papers depend so heavily upon photographic evidence when they present the news. But, sometimes, the pictures are published without the background story, and, without proper context, tell a tale quite opposite to the actual events. In 1968, e.g., a famous photographs was taken, in which South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan put a pistol to the head of a man and shot him, point blank. The photo was circulated as a fine example of “the brutality of our side”. Except that the man General Nguyen was faced with was a guerilla who had only recently murdered a policeman and his entire family. But in the camera’s eye, the guerilla was just some poor hapless Asian murdered during wartime.

The same can be said of more recent events. The television camera pans across a broken sea of filthy water, and spots a person sitting quietly on a rooftop, stranded by waters come three days after the storm has passed. Nobody points out that all the experts had said the city went unharmed by the storm, only to have a nearby lake pour down the city streets. Nobody points out that the person on the rooftop can still see the hood of his pickup truck in the driveway below -- the one he could have driven out of the city on day one -- submerged by the flood. Nobody points out that the city had been issued a mandatory evacuation order. They simply see the poor soul sitting, starving, waiting for somebody to airlift him out of there. Obviously, the man is suffering because the federal government didn’t rescue him the day before the floodwaters started to rise. It’s a failure of psychic proportions. The image burned into our brains has nothing to do with the actual truth of the circumstances.

The leader of a “peace rally” in Texas is shown surrounded by a dense crowd. The photograph has been cropped to hide the fact that the majority of the crowd of “supporters” is made up of other reporters and photographers, and the rally has fewer than five dozen actual ralliers. The network news features that one side, not even mentioning the hundred or so who stand in opposition, less than half a city block up the road. At another “peace rally” in California, a comely teen-aged girl is shown in defiant pose. The photograph is a close-up. You don’t see that (a) there are only a dozen or so in her group, (b) that they all wear identical, professionally-printed messaged masks, or (c) that her group is being carefully directed by an adult wearing communist party emblems. The manipulators are left out of the mainstream report.

Across the sea and an ocean of sand away, reporters sit in their upper-story hotel rooms waiting for reports from their “sources”, to tell them what they need to share with the rest of the world. Nobody from the networks, nobody from the major magazines, and certainly nobody from radio has immediate access to the front line troops any more. They are no longer embedded. That would cost the corporations which sponsor them. Their life insurance rates alone would bankrupt a small country, if the companies chose to pay for insurance. Add to it all the security equipment, transportation, communication and other troubles -- it’s just more fiscally responsible to tell the story from a safe distance. And, they won’t accept online reports from military bloggers or the locals who can write -- copyright issues might be rasied. So, bits of film footage which come out from a war zone will be the most dramatic they can obtain -- more “bang” for your buck. Who cares if the source is an al Qaeda supporter eager to sell his film for a propaganda coup? As long as it’s thrilling, it’s on the air.

We all have our personal biases. When a picture or a filmed scene crosses our paths, we often look for the message we want to see in it. Those who create news shows and edit journals know this full well. The majority of reporters and editors in today’s news media are looking for ways to boost their viewership, so they cater to our desires, as they perceive them. They believe that we are all shallow or lazy enough to take what they feed us, accept it at face value, never questioning. Most of us are. We turn on the boob tube and soak it up, as though what our eyes tell is is the whole picture.

But, sometimes, our eyes are made liars. If we tolerate that, in ourselves or our journalists, we are worse than blind: we are willfully ignorant.
If, at any time, a reader wishes to question me on sources for any issue I’ve tackled, please feel free to do so [print edition provides invitation to visit here]. I’m always open for honest debate and new information.

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