The Numbing Effect

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Television is a gallery of agony and infamy whose pictures have stunning potency. But how lasting? Such pictures have tradition, from NBC's live camera on Jack Ruby's gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 to the 9/11 terror and this month's circulated photos of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

"If there were no pictures, there would be no story," someone noted on CNN recently, stating a maxim that defines most TV news, unfortunately.

It's applicable now to a prison scandal whose signature image so far—dark and surreal—is a prisoner attached to wires while standing on a box, hardly wide enough for his bare feet, in a cape-like garment and hood.

More pictures are surfacing. Yet note the irony of these early visuals: Pfc. Lynndie England as the scandal's grinning poster villain only a year after the U.S. military had sought mightily to make another Army private from a small town, Jessica Lynch, a poster heroine.

Here, too, are pictures of naked prisoners—splashed on TV just a few months after a fleeting glimpse of Janet Jackson's breast traumatized the multitudes (poor babies) and as a misguided FCC careens wildly in its quest to cleanse the airwaves.

Speaking of irony, though, here is the question: Will pictures from Iraq that now horrify us ultimately desensitize us?

The 24-hour news channels will help determine that. CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC—which influence the rest of media out of proportion to their relatively small viewership—are compelled by their DNA to fill their gaping news holes through repetition. These non-stop pistons pound in news gratuitously, however redundant, while often creating grossly excessive coverage that fills time but benefits no one.

Think Howard Dean. His concession speech after the Iowa Caucuses was replayed so often on TV that you'd have thought he'd confessed to pedophilia instead of merely giving way to spontaneous emotion. The nerve of the guy.

And think Abu Ghraib, no question a huge story with cosmic implications.

Yet, with the latter, here's the danger: As visual familiarity sets in, so may something else that could affect public opinion and even the race for the White House. Although the prison scandal is expanding, will sheer repetition of the same images—wallpapered across TV each time the story is mentioned even peripherally—inure much of America and ultimately soften revulsion to a dull ache or less?

The same three abuse photos were repeated four times during one recent 10-minute strip of CNN, for example. Will the level of outrage atrophy dramatically as our eyes become accustomed to these terrible sights through a steady drumbeat of recurrence? Perhaps stakes are too high and these pictures too numerous and widely traveled for it to happen. Perhaps not.

Try this:

The images on the screen shamed and angered us, touching off funnel clouds of furor. They were devastating, offensive, ugly, painful, dispiriting, shocking, profane, inexplicable. They were indelible, capturing barbarous conduct by fellow Americans whom we had trusted to act honorably and lawfully. We were outraged by these pictures showing inhumane behavior. Who were these people who did this? How dare they disgrace the uniform with their cruelty and sadism? Where was their judgment? Where was their humanity?

Where was their respect for the rights of Rodney G. King?

Yes, those pictures: amateur video of King getting pounded savagely by L.A. cops just past midnight on March 3, 1991. That footage would make headlines, shatter perceptions, and offer striking contrasts between news in print and on TV.

Even when advancing stories, newspapers and magazines rarely run the same picture twice, except for mug shots. The guiding principal is that old pictures are old news and also that reprinting them can make a subjective statement.

TV is a visual medium by definition, though, and, as the man said, no pictures, no story.

Which is why the same graphic abuse pictures now accompany each TV mention of Abu Ghraib, as if viewers were amnesiacs. And that's why daily TV coverage of the King defendants, in a state trial preceding a successful prosecution by the feds, featured pictures galore. Usually the same pictures.

I watched King beaten as he lay on the ground so often that I became largely dulled to the horrific sight of it. Others told me they felt as I did, that the shock eroded more with each viewing.

The prison scandal affirms TV as our national archive of violence and misery, much of it important for the public to witness. What you rarely get from newscasts, though—because violence and misery are their obsessions—are pictures that affirm the best of humanity or command us to pause and reflect about suffering.

So it was meaningful that photos of flag-wrapped caskets returning from Iraq were beamed to the nation recently and that Nightline devoted a program to reading names and displaying pictures of U.S. troops who had died there, offering America images that compete with the nasty ones now making the rounds.