Just How Big an Impact Do Pictures of War Have on Public Opinion?

News at Home




Mr. Perlmutter is associate professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University, and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs. His books include Photojournalism and Foreign Policy (Praeger, 1998) and Visions of War (St.Martin's, 2001).

News pictures can be problems for modern statesmen. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lamented to Congress in May 2004, "We're functioning with peacetime restraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation in the information age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they have not even arrived in the Pentagon."

These are ancient concerns. In Plato's Republic, the philosopher argued that most artists should be banned from an ideal state because they upset public opinion with "emotional" images that "too easily fool the senses, confusing reality with falsehood." Today, modern technology allows anyone with a digital camera and a Web connection to upload a picture for global consumption. The "live from ground zero," 24/7 nature of news compresses the old news cycle, in which editors usually had at least a day to consider what was "fit to print" or air.

A few of the thousands of news pictures that appear in print, on broadcasts and cablecasts, and on the Web each day become icons of photojournalism: "Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima," "Saigon shooting during Tet Offensive," "Man standing against the tanks near Tiananmen," "Desecrated bodies of American soldiers in Mogadishu," or "Toppling of Saddam's statue." These "big pictures," as I term them, are claimed to drive public opinion, overturn government agendas, force policy, and make history.

To take one example, in My American Journey, Secretary of State Colin Powell explained his reasons for advising an end to hostilities in the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam had ordered his forces to withdraw from Kuwait, and their escape route out of Kuwait City had turned into a shooting gallery for U.S. fliers. Reporters began referring to this road as the Highway of Death. "The television coverage," Powell wrote, "was starting to make it look as if we were engaged in slaughter for slaughter's sake." It is hard to imagine such a rationale besetting Generals Washington, Sherman, or Patton, who waged war before the CNN. Today, a policy that does not "look good" may be unsustainable.

In the case of the "Highway of Death," appearances were deceiving. Postwar studies found that most of the wrecks on the Basra roadway had been abandoned by Iraqis before being strafed and that actual enemy casualties were low. Further, opinion surveys showed that American support for the war was largely unaffected by the images. (Arab and Muslim public opinion was, of course, another matter, about which Powell may have been rightly concerned.)

The main pictorial differences between the 2003 Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War centered on the issue of control. Most American war planners of 1991 were of the Vietnam generation; some had fought there. Restrictions on the press were tight in 1991, and Americans saw mainly pictures that were provided by the DoD. But government planners understood that the news media needed strong visuals, and disseminated images of Patriot missiles shooting up in the air, laser-guided bombs taking out bridges, and other remarkable tech-war images. We learned only after the conflict that many of these images were not showing what we were told was happening. For example, regarding images of "scud-busting," the U.S. Air Force's own Gulf War Air Power Survey concluded that "it remains impossible to confirm the actual destruction of any Iraqi mobile launchers by Coalition aircraft."

By 2003, communications technology had improved to the point that individual journalists could easily uplink to satellites to file reports on the invasion of Iraq, and embedded journalists could file reports accompanied by startling footage. But when the regime fell and the insurgency began, the DoD had no counter-images to offer against the relentless scenes of burning American vehicles and smoking Iraqi buildings. Modern televisual news found nothing newsworthy in the greater part of Iraq, where reconstruction was under way. This is a universal principle of news: one bombed hotel is more photo-worthy than a hundred rebuilt schools. The modern policymaker, then, must provide images to support the policy, not just chafe at "negative" coverage. We need a guiding theory of image strategies that policymakers should consider before making any assumptions about the effect of any given iconic image.

THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSAGE

Mass visual propaganda as we know it was born in the twentieth century, when new technologies allowed millions of any one image to be produced. Techniques of mass persuasion, whether in the service of communism, Nazism, or consumer capitalism, multiplied. People in the global electronic village were getting almost all of their information about each other from mediated words and news images rather than personal experience.

In the last two decades, there has been an expansion of what we define as "the media." Younger audiences especially get their news from a fragmented hodgepodge of sources such as Matt Drudge, blogs, friends' e-mails, "The Daily Show," and Jay Leno. Mainstream news still exists, but it has thousands of gadfly competitors. With the development of digital photography, any scene can be faked or altered via digital-editing software. Many such doctored shots now fly through the Internet, and some have even broken into traditional media. Certainly, the Internet/digital genie cannot be put back in the bottle. But the interplay of pictures and public affairs can be better understood.

SAIGON, 1968: THE PICTURE THAT LOST THE WAR?

In February 1968, outside a Buddhist temple in Saigon, Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese National Police, shot a "Vietcong suspect." It was one small piece of violence among the Tet Offensive of attacks by Vietcong irregulars, but a number of Western television crews and a few still photographers were present. One, Eddie Adams of the AP, happened to take his photograph at the moment the prisoner was shot; an NBC camera crew captured the aftermath. Within 24 hours, Adams's picture appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the world.

The NBC film was shown on the next evening's Huntley-Brinkley Report to 20 million viewers. The Saigon execution seems a classic case of a powerful image that drove public opinion and government decision-making. Hundreds of politicians, reporters, editors, and scholars have asserted that "this was the picture that lost the war" or "this was the picture that drove the American public against the war."

But did it? American public opinion did eventually turn against continuing the war in Vietnam, and after Tet, no president promised "victory" there, only peace with minimal losses and embarrassment. Yet support for the war actually rose during Tet. Opposition rose only afterwards, and most Americans who opposed the war were primarily concerned with American casualties and the conflict's interminable length. The public seemed unfazed by the Saigon photo. NBC received only 90 comments about the execution footage, most objecting to its being broadcast during the dinner hour. Many Americans felt that the Vietcong suspect "got what he deserved."

Such a response (or lack of it) was not unreasonable. Could we expect an American audience in 1968 to have any great concern for the fate of one of the enemy? Polling during the war found that a majority of the public had negative feelings toward North Vietnam and the Vietcong. So while some in government panicked at the photo-icon's celebrity, the American public was neither irrational nor emotional in its reaction.

From this we draw a basic lesson of statecraft. As George Gallup once observed, "Inaction hurts a president more than anything else." A crisis in foreign policy usually is accompanied by a rallying boost in public opinion for the commander-in-chief. But the crest of support only lasts if the commander then leads effectively. During Tet, President Johnson -- depressed, facing criticism from within the administration, and uncertain of his own course -- was largely absent from the public sphere. The Saigon execution picture, thus, changed few minds; failure of leadership was the more powerful foreign affairs catalyst.

TIANANMEN, 1989: THE MAN AGAINST THE TANKS

In spring 1989, student demonstrations in the People's Republic of China began to receive saturation media attention. Events in Beijing's Tiananmen Square became the focus of news cameras. World audiences witnessed the saga of protests, hunger strikes, confrontation with officials, the erection of a "Goddess of Democracy," the crackdown of the Chinese government on June 4 and the repression to follow.

The photo that came to symbolize the entire Tiananmen Spring movement was taken several blocks away from the Square, and it contained none of the violence that crushed the protests. A column of Chinese army tanks rumbled down East Changan Boulevard, just below the tourist hotel to which most foreign journalists had retreated. A young man stepped in front of the lead tank. The column of tanks stopped, and the man shouted, "Why are you here? . . . You have done nothing but create misery. My city is in chaos because of you." A stalemate ensued as the man refused to budge and the tanks neither crushed him nor maneuvered around. Finally, bystanders convinced the man to withdraw and whisked him away. His fate is unconfirmed to this day.

Unlike the Saigon shooting, the "Man against the tanks" drew universal celebrity and admiration of this heroic deed. Time magazine later named the defiant pedestrian one of the top-20 revolutionaries and leaders of the twentieth century. President George H. W. Bush said that the man's stalwartness and the tank soldiers' "restraint" convinced him that "the forces of democracy are going to overcome these unfortunate events."

Fifteen years later, we might ask whether the picture actually changed the geopolitical landscape. Trade suffered in the short term, and military exchanges in the middle term. But Washington could not break off relations with China permanently, and Beijing knew it. Chinese products remain ubiquitous in American homes. Nor did bad feelings toward Beijing influence U.S. voting behavior. Indeed, a poll shortly after the incident found that while 92 percent of respondents supported suspending military sales, 54 percent rated the president's response to Tiananmen as "just about right." The lesson: Sometimes a rhetorical response to a news icon is all that is required of political leaders, when the "crisis" seems to be waning and the effect on Americans is small.

SOMALIA, 1992-93: ENTRANCE ICONS VS. EXIT ICONS

On December 4, 1992, When President George H. W. Bush announced that American troops would be sent to Somalia to assist UN relief efforts, he said, "Every American has seen the shocking images from Somalia. The people of Somalia, especially the children of Somalia, need our help." The connection between pictures and action was seemingly direct. Bush's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, later claimed that "TV tipped us over the top."

A year later, other pictures, it is commonly thought, "drove" Americans out of Somalia. These showed the aftermath of the battle of Mogadishu, a raid intended to capture warlord General Mohamed Farah Aidid. American audiences saw Somalis desecrating and dragging through the streets the bodies of U.S. soldiers, as well as another soldier's battered face on video taken by his kidnappers. The White House assured the public that President Clinton "finds those pictures reprehensible, and he wants to make sure something is done about that." His administration eventually announced a pullout of troops from Somalia.

The Somalia intervention and exit are often cited as cases of icons driving public opinion and public policy. Certainly audiences were told this was an important issue. "Tonight," Jane Pauley announced early in the coverage, "Somalia has moved to the top of the global agenda." Yet, the agenda was moving in that direction anyway. Many aid groups and the UN were setting up operations before the U.S. intervention, and the president was aware of crisis. But the world had previously seen so many starving-African-baby images that they had become generic: in almost no case was a military response considered. In retrospect, it is not at all clear that the Somalia starvation images spurred intervention.

Similarly, the mission was already unpopular by September 1993, and few Americans had been paying attention to Somalia before the Battle of Mogadishu; hence the shock of the images of defeat and humiliation. As in Vietnam, the primary concern of the American public was the American soldier. The public wanted a strong response in answer to potent images, and Clinton, unlike Johnson, complied. Indeed, polling data suggest that if he had employed the images to illustrate an opposite strategy -- a new military commitment to avenge the fallen -- the public would have supported him just as strongly.

IRAQ: THE RISE OF THE HYPERICON?

The new indelible images of world affairs might be called hypericons. They gain fleeting attention and then are replaced quickly by new icons. Since 9/11, a number of pictures have received saturation coverage, from Saddam's capture in his bunker through the orange-jumpsuited hostages. Again, what power do they have?

In March 2004, Iraqi insurgents killed four American civilian contractors in Fallujah. A civilian mob then beat the corpses, dragged them through the streets, and hung two from a bridge. Photos such as "Iraqis beat burnt corpses with shoes and cheer" emerged on web sites. Mainstream media, concerned about the sensitivities involved, showed pictures of lesser violence, or cropped or digitally edited the photos. Bill Shine of Fox TV noted that Fox found the footage "too graphic in nature to put on our air," but Richard Tapscott of the Des Moines Register has said that while that paper ran "Contractors hanging from bridge" in sufficient detail that one could see the bodies, it purposely placed it on an inside page, printed it in black and white.

In April 2003, a 40-foot bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square was pulled down. Pictures of the events, shown in medium shots that made the crowd appear larger than it actually was, were exhibited worldwide. "If this isn't symbolism, I don't know what is," announced NBC's Katie Couric. Secretary Rumsfeld stated that "the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom." But the statue fall was in essence a photo-op by the U.S. military, with the participants invited in and the area closed off.

In April 2004, an employee of a civilian firm working for the DoD took several digital pictures inside a cargo plane parked at Kuwait International Airport. One was of more than 20 flag-draped coffins of American service people killed in Iraq. The worker e-mailed the picture to a friend in Seattle, who, showed it to the Seattle Times, which ran it within a story about war casualties. Since 1991 this practice has been barred by the DoD, but only since 2003 has the policy been strictly enforced. Other media picked up the picture, and additional coffin photos began to appear -- some fakes, some miscaptioned. A controversy ensued: Was the DoD policy keeping the American people from seeing the consequences of war? What about families' rights to privacy? What should the public see from the war?

Again, the political effects of such pictures depend on the actions of the leadership. Photos such as those taken at Fallujah set up a crisis in foreign policy, much as the similar pictures from Somalia had. Yet President Bush responded only by promising to "stay the course," and the administration's subsequent actions reinforced perceptions that it was indecisive. At the time, the American military was poised outside of Fallujah, where several thousand insurgents were entrenched. A Marine general had told the rebels they had "days, not weeks" to disarm. But the operation was halted, not to be resumed until the end of the year.

The American public has historically been willing to "stay the course" to march to Berlin or island-hop to Tokyo, but not to watch its soldiers die each day in an insurgency war. Hence no one picture, according to surveys, has shocked public opinion, but rather support for the war has declined over time. Notably, during the retaking of Fallujah, the steady decline in public support of the armed forces stopped, temporarily.

PICTURES AND POLICYMAKERS

The above cases suggest, first, that if policymakers don't provide action pictures, then journalists will seek them out on their own. Policymakers must therefore anticipate the images a policy will engender as much as they anticipate its material effects. The administration had no plan for the post-invasion "image" battlefield in Iraq. Worse, it presented little of the considerable visual evidence of the war crimes and crimes against humanity of Saddam's Baathist regime. We have pictures of the corpses of small girls still clutching their rag dolls after being killed and dumped into mass graves. These have only occasionally appeared in media. Why was there not a sustained publicity effort by the Departments of Defense and State to "show" the world -- especially Muslim nations -- the horrors of Saddam's regime? From the point of view of visual persuasion, the lack of any such campaign constitutes a propaganda failure of spectacular proportions.

The Departments of State and Defense have also been slow to react to negative "icons" from Iraq, failing to expect the unexpected. Democratic governments cannot censor any images for very long. Sensational images can bypass traditional media and will appear before world audiences practically in real time; responses by policymakers must be equally quick and direct but also considered. This is only possible if the "image" scenarios are as comprehensively pre-thought out and strategized as battlefield options and contingent outcomes.

Finally, the American public is neither overly emotional nor irrational in its reaction to images. The public will, however, be concerned about the fate of Americans and what America is doing in the world; policymakers should assess what the public will look for in a given picture and what its likely reaction will be. Pictures do not "drive" foreign affairs unless policymakers let them. Time and again, decisive leadership has been the best response to any outrage an iconic image may cause: the modern media world, however, may have redefined what we mean by "visionary" leadership.

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This essay is a condensed version of an article that appears in the winter 2005 issue of Orbis, the quarterly journal of world affairs published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).



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More Comments:


James Spence - 2/7/2005

"The above cases suggest, first, that if policymakers don't provide action pictures, then journalists will seek them out on their own."


John Reed Tarver - 2/7/2005

So, what's his point.