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Photos of War: Censorship or Sensibility?

On this week's program, LA Times media columnist James Rainey takes American journalism to task for consistently refusing to publish or air images of dead or wounded US military personnel in coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rainey argues the effect is to present a "bloodless" war to the public that neither reflects the gruesome reality of the conflicts, nor honors those who were killed or wounded in it.

For editors, it's a tough decision. Does the need to tell the story, and present the reality of war, override other considerations?

This is, of course, not a new debate. It's been a hot topic since the dawn of photography.

The Civil War offered the first real opportunity for photographers to document combat, although their equipment was cumbersome and could not capture fast-moving scenes.

This photograph, The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, published in 1865, succeeded in communicating the loneliness of a soldier's death. However, one analyst suspects that the photographer, Alexander Gardner, actually moved the body to the site and posed it to create a more dramatic picture. That violates every ethic of a modern photojournalist, but clearly in Gardner's time, no such standards existed.

During World War One, American military censors exercised broad control over the publication of a wide variety of images. A report issued after the war, in 1926, detailed the reasons and rationale for the censorship, and contained a collection of banned images.

The report explains that all manner of photos were censored, including pictures of soldiers drinking alcohol, depictions of weaponry or cowardice, and images of dead and wounded servicemen, such as the photo, here, of bodies being buried at a battlefield grave site in France.

The report notes, somewhat paternalistically, that the public needed to be shielded from images of American fighters suffering wounds or death. "Grewsome [sic] scenes that enabled anxious mothers and wives to visualize in each casualty her own son or husband, were usually withheld. Neither the press nor the picture theatres were inclined to show horrors however; the public did not want it."

This policy of censorship continued as the United States entered World War Two. Indeed, the public campaign "Loose lips sink ships" made every American aware of the need for secrecy, and there was little if any public outcry over censorship of media.

In fact, by 1943, the censorship campaign was working a little too well, at least in the estimation of President Roosevelt and the War Department.

Concerned that the public at home was becoming complacent in the face of the ongoing sacrifice by troops, the Administration approved the publication of a photo of three soldiers, lying dead on a beach in New Guinea. The picture, taken by George Strock, ran in Life Magazine, accompanied by a full page explanation of why the publication chose to run it. Still, for the most part, Americans didn't see their fallen warriors in print or in the newsreels, though the government did allow images of suffering civilians, and later, of the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

This policy of censorship was maintained during the Korean War, and it included bans on photographs showing the devastation caused by massive US bombing of North Korea.

It was in Vietnam where everything changed. Military censorship of press activity was dramatically curtailed. A new breed of war reporters had lighter equipment and better communication technologies. They were allowed to cover the war freely. In the early 60's the nightly news programs expanded from 15 to 30 minutes. They featured scenes of intense combat in Southeast Asia—thus, Vietnam became known as the "first war to take place in America's living rooms."

Many in the military and in the government believed the press was responsible for turning the public against the war. This is a matter of dispute. Some academic studies show coverage of the war was generally positive, and that heavy viewers of television news were more likely to support the war effort.

But among the many "never again" lessons of Vietnam was a decision by the military to never again allow journalists to have free rein in covering a war. In 1984, the Marine Corps issued a voluminous report on coverage of the Vietnam War and its implications for future conflict. Among the conclusions:

What we need, contrary to the failed policies of Vietnam, is not Freedom of the Press, but Freedom from the Press. Or, more specifically, freedom from the television camera and its interference. Censorship during war is an established, tried and true method of preventing the enemy from gaining advantage; what is needed is not censorship in its pure sense, though, but an adaptation to fit the times. In our next war the television cameras must stay home.

While that was not quite the case for the next big conflict, the military had learned a lesson. In the Persian Gulf War, tough restrictions were put on the press. The military established a policy of "pool" reporting, where a group of designated journalists would be allowed to travel with the military to certain sites, and then share their reporting with the press contingent as a whole. The rules were specific:

  1. No reporters could visit any U.S. military unit or travel outside of Dhahran or Riyadh except in a press pool.
  2. No pool was permitted in the field without an escort, usually a U.S. military public-affairs officer (PAO).
  3. No interviews of U.S. military personnel were permitted without an escort present.
  4. All pool dispatches must first pass through the "military security review system." (PAOs at each pool location reviewed all dispatches and could delete or change any "military sensitive information." Reporters could appeal any censorship to the military pool coordinating office in Dhahran and then to the Pentagon.)
  5. Violations of the above rules could result in arrest, detention, revocation of press credentials, and expulsion from the combat zone.

Although some journalists complained about the restrictions, the media for the most part cooperated. In justifying the military's need for press controls, one high Navy official, Rear Admiral John Bitoff, remarked: "There is a clear and present danger in today's instant-communications age, which may put our troops at risk. Our enemies are watching CNN-TV."

By the time of the Iraq War, the 24-hour news cycle was well-established, as was the military's approach to managing the news. In return for abiding by restrictions, journalists were allowed to "embed" with troop units during the initial invasion, following the military campaign as an integrated part of the combat force. The military had learned of television's fascination with the weapons of war, and allowed them to present spectacular visuals of what was deemed a campaign of "shock and awe." Coverage of the early engagement was largely positive, and the military's approach seemed to be working in their favor.

But as the initial "victory" devolved into a long and bloody battle with insurgents, the coverage became more skeptical, and the military's ability to control it weakened. Still, the amorphous nature of the conflict—no clear battle lines—and the ongoing policy of embedding journalists mean that to a great degree, military control of journalism remains in place in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And for media organizations, a decision to publish an image of a dead or wounded service member remains fraught with controversy. As part of a story in 2007 about the Iraq war (registration required), the New York Times published a picture of a wounded soldier who was the focus of the story, and who died of his wounds. The Times was roundly criticized for including that photo. General Raymond T. Odierno wrote in protest to the paper that "the young man who so valiantly gave his life in the service of others was displayed for the entire world to see in the gravest condition and in such a fashion as to elicit horror at its sight. This photograph will be the last of this man that his family will ever see."

For editors, it's a tough decision. Does the need to tell the story, and present the reality of war, override other considerations? It's clear that there is never an easy answer, and that just as every war is controversial, so too will be the ways in which it is covered by the press.

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