Packaging News, Stirring Perceptions
By Michael Getler
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page B06
I've written a lot in recent weeks about images, mostly photographic ones. This week's column is also about images, but ones that form in the mind of some readers about how newspapers feel about things.
Iraq is one example. Whatever one's view about the war, this has been an especially brutal couple of months. And although there is always the possibility that history will record a positive outcome, there is also more than a whiff of despair, even failure, in the air these days.
The lead headline in The Post on Sunday, May 9, said, "Dissension Grows in Senior Ranks on War Strategy; U.S. May Be Winning Battles in Iraq but Losing the War, Some Officers Say." On Wednesday, two front-page headlines said, "Violence Leaves Iraqis in Despair" and "U.S. Faces Growing Fears of Failure."
After those Wednesday headlines, a couple of readers protested. "With all due respect," one said, "this isn't reporting, it's cheerleading for failure and smacks of blatant support for the lefty spin that Iraq is a quagmire. It looks like piling on. There are problems, of course, but most of the 'on the brink' comes from the major media here and in Europe and doesn't reflect 'ground truth' in Iraq, which is that a lot of progress has been and is being made in spite of the high-profile attacks and the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal."
Personal feelings about this war have run very high among readers, even before it started, and the view that things are better than the press makes them out to be has been expressed by the Bush administration and supporters of the war for more than a year. There are, undoubtedly, some positive developments that may not have been reported.
But it seems to me that events on the ground have confirmed the thrust and credibility of the reporting on this conflict and that the press generally has been more reliable than official statements as a guide to what is happening. My view is that both this country and Iraq are at a critical juncture in a huge, costly and controversial undertaking and that readers who view the work of reporters covering this for major U.S. news organizations as "lefty spin" are fooling themselves.
Ironically, with so much uncertainty, so much at stake and so much violence, the danger to journalists from an organized force of killers and kidnappers has now become so great that it is inhibiting the kind of on-the-scene reporting, and recording of Iraqi voices about the occupation, that have been so important thus far.
There were other images, too; separate events that might blend in the eye of a casual reader or could be intentionally blended by others for darker purposes.
On Wednesday, right next to the Post headlines about "Despair" and "Fears of Failure" in Iraq, the lead story headline said, "Israelis Kill 19 in Gaza Raids." The next day, another front-page headline reported, "Israel Attack Kills 10 at Gaza Protest," with an Associated Press photo of a Palestinian man carrying an injured youth. On that same front page was a story from Baghdad about more than 40 Iraqis killed in a U.S. air attack near the Syrian border, the circumstances of which were in dispute. An Associated Press Television Network photo of Iraqis digging graves accompanied that story.
The Philadelphia Inquirer made a powerful package out of the news and photos from Iraq and Gaza, playing them both big on the front, but leading with the Iraq story and a big picture from the Iraqi cemetery by the Arab TV network al-Arabiya. This appeared over a "News Analysis" article making the point that these two unconnected and coincidental episodes and images on the same day -- one involving Americans, the other involving Israelis but both involving Arab casualties and U.S.-made weapons -- were reported on Arab television and were likely to help "fuel perceptions [among Arabs] that Islam is under attack from the West."
Among the other images that seemed to pop into the head of some readers last week was one of a newspaper devoting far too many stories to the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. I counted 18 stories, not including editorials and op-ed page commentaries, between May 12 and 20. "They are getting on my nerves," one reader said, and a couple more seconded that.
And then there were the two big stories and pictures on Tuesday's front page, and another big splash on the front of Style, when more than 600 gay couples were married in Massachusetts as that state became the first to allow same-sex marriages. This was, of course, big news, and I thought the Post stories were well handled. But some readers, as has happened before, viewed this degree of prominence as evidence of a Post agenda on the topic.
Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, surveying the headlines in many newspapers in his online column last Tuesday, captured the issue well, I thought. He said they had "an unmistakably upbeat tone. The overall vibe of most of the headlines and leads is that this is a step forward. Which, in the view of many liberal-leaning people and journalists, it is. But what is overshadowed, and what fuels the perception that the press is out of touch, is that many people consider this a negative step."
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company